‘Food for the Gods’ by Karen Dudley

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Ian Goodwillie

Do you know the story of Pelops? It’s a notorious piece of Greek mythology that has been told a number of ways but the general story goes something like this…

Pelops’ father, Tantalus, king of Mount Sipylus, wanted to make an offering to the Olympian gods as part of a feast he held in their honour. To spice things up a little, Tantalus cut Pelops into pieces and made his flesh into a stew that Tantalus then served to the gods. All of the gods in attendance noticed this strange culinary choice and avoided that particular dish. Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, was deep in grief after the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades and took a taste, eating Pelops’ left shoulder. As a means of apology, Pelops was ritually reassembled and brought back to life, his shoulder replaced with one of ivory made by Hephaestus. After Pelops’ resurrection, Poseidon took him to Olympus, then Zeus threw him out, angry that Tantalus had revealed the secrets of the gods.

You’re probably feeling a sense of déjà vu from your last family BBQ, right?

This myth serves as the inspiration for Winnipeg writer Karen Dudley’s recently released fantasy novel, Food for the Gods. If you were a young man with godly connections who had a history of family mental disorders and trauma, what would you do when you came back from the land of the dead? Become a celebrity chef in Athens, of course.

The life of a chef in Athens seems precarious enough, but when you add in the special circumstances Pelops has to deal with, it is downright deadly. Beset from all sides by competitors, Pelops must constantly defend his culinary turf from encroachment. Add into that a string of patrons that have no respect for your work and it is a hard life for a chef in Greece’s most golden of ages, especially when you’re implicated in the death of a customer. And you would think that someone with as much experience with Greek gods as Pelops would know better than to trust a god with the moral turpitude of Dionysus, the god of things like the grape harvest, winemaking, wine, ritual madness and ecstasy. This makes him great at parties but bad at giving practical advice, and doubly so when he’s flanked by Hermes.

Dudley has quite elegantly and creatively taken a classic Greek myth and woven it into something unique. The base idea of taking Pelops, someone who had been served up as food for the gods, and making him into a chef, is brilliant. It is the ultimate source of all of the conflict in the story as it is a mysterious patron and a rival chef that are responsible for so many of the misfortunes that befall Pelops. Well, there’s also Poseidon’s kind of creepy infatuation with Pelops but that problem started long before Pelops’ career as a chef…

This is not Karen Dudley’s first work, though it is her first foray into the world of fantasy writing. She is best known for writing environmental mysteries, which works well given her background in biology. But she also has history in the world of archaeology and Classical Studies, which undoubtedly fuelled her move to writing a fantasy set in ancient Athens.

Dudley’s previous experience as a mystery writer shines through in her fantasy writing, both in the plot as well as in its pacing. This style suits the story well as there are a number of plot threads going on at once, all of which are handled deftly by the author. The classical stage is well set, and immerses us in the world quickly and clearly.

The author’s love for mythology is apparent in this story, through simply defining it as a fantasy does not do it justice. It is equal parts mystery and comedy, not to mention being raucous thanks to a certain pair of gods who are just trying to help…

Dionysus pressed another cup of wine into my [Pelops’] hands. “Don’t worry, mate,” he tried to reassure me. “**** hates me too. Been there, done that, and look! I’m still here.” He pauses and rubbed his nose uncomfortably. “Of course, she did curse me with madness for a few years and send me wandering all over the world and… ah, but don’t you worry,” he said waving it off airily. “Hermes and I’ll watch your back for you. We’re on the job, yeah?”

Using established mythologies in new literature is a dangerous game. They have been adapted and re-adapted so many times that it can be hard to find a new take on them. But as Chadwick Ginther did with Norse mythology in his recently launched book, Thunder Road, Dudley has done the same with Greek mythology in Food for the Gods by giving the reader a brand new perspective on some classic concepts.

Ravenstone | 344 pages |  $16.00 | paper | ISBN #978-0888014016

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Ian Goodwillie

A former bookseller and well-noted geek, Ian has hosted a radio program that examined the author's life as well as reviewing books and graphic novels for online magazines and TV programs. He lives in Saskatoon.