Published by Touchstone
Publication date: April 25th 2017
One of the grandest things that can happen to a reader is coming across a book with a new perspective on a subject they’ve read about extensively. Recently, I read Crystal King’s Feast of Sorrow, a novel about Italy in the time of Caesar Tiberius, because, hello, I read all of the Colleen McCullough Masters of Rome books and just finished reading a novel about Nero. I do not pass up historical fiction about ancient Italy! However, King goes above and beyond my jones for the Romans by blending it with…food. Even better, Feast of Sorrow is told from the perspective of the slave with creates all of the meals in the novel. Thrasius is not even twenty when his prowess in the kitchen is enough for him to be purchased by Marcus Apicius, a man with unlimited wealth who wants to make his name in Rome in order to be chosen as Caesar’s culinary advisor.
Feast of Sorrow also delighted me because, at its marrow, it’s true. There was an Italian named Marcus Apicius who lived in the 1st century AD and is thought to have compiled one of the first cookbooks ever written. He was a lover of luxury in all its forms and through King we read about cellars filled with snow to provide refrigeration, scissor slaves who cut your food for you, and dining on flamingos’ tongues.
If food isn’t your thing, that’s not a problem. Feast of Sorrow has something for every taste and one its main themes are the power struggles that go on amongst the Roman elite. These lead to two things: killing your enemy and marrying his wife or daughter. Both require a skill for scheming and loyal slaves. The best way to accomplish the killing is with poison which seems to be as much loved as food, so death is only a bite away for anyone with a position or wife coveted by others.
Using history as her main ingredient King blends Apicius’s life with that of other Roman notables of the times and heats it to a boil with secrets and political intrigue. At the same time, it’s Thrasius’s story that brings spice to the dish of Feast of Sorrow. Much like the series Downton Abbey, the life going on behind the scenes is as fascinating as what’s onstage. Even though his inventiveness makes him a valuable commodity Thrasius’s story is a stark contrast to Apicius’s. As a slave his life is not his own and as Apicius ups the stakes to reach his goal Thrasius is caught in the middle. By tying their fates together King seasons Feast of Sorrow into a banquet of dishy reading that satisfies.