Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw starts out strong, with a unique protagonist and a pantheon not often seen in English-language novels.
Rupert Wong, the sort-of hero of the novel, is a chef. Specifically, he is a chef in the employ of Kuala Lumpur’s powerful ghoul dynasty. And of course, ghouls only eat human flesh. Rupert Wong also works as an administrator for the Ten Chinese Hells. He’s a sort of working-man’s wizard, with an overly expensive apartment, and a reanimated corpse for a girlfriend.
Khaw paints her setting through the eyes of a man who is almost bored by it, but plays a neat narrative trick. You see Rupert is our narrator, and he knows that most of the people reading this story are going to be Americans. So he addresses his tale directly to that audience, taking the time to, sometimes insultingly, explain the many important details and vagaries of the various Chinese deities and demons he encounters. Rupert Wong doesn’t particularly like you, and he isn’t shy about saying so.
The first half of the book is set almost entirely in and around this southeast Asian locale and it’s mythological counterparts. I found the beginning totally intriguing and wish the story hadn’t strayed from that thread. Unfortunately, for me, Khaw decides to send Wong to England, and, again for me, that is where the story falls apart.
In England Rupert of course encounters English gods, but he also, oddly, encounters the Greek pantheon. At this point, the story takes on an almost paint-by-numbers feeling. We’ve all seen the Greek gods a million times before, and Khaw does nothing new with them. The handful of English deities and spirits peppered in are far more interesting, but receive nowhere near the page-time necessary to make them the stars of the story they deserved to be.
By the end, Khaw is playing in the Lovecraft mythos, and I found myself wondering why. For someone who brilliantly brought Lovecraftian horror to the detective genre in Hammers on Bone, her attempts to bring the Elder Gods to this story feels tacked on and unnecessary.
I looked into the background of this book a little after reading, and learned that the two half were originally published as separate stories, and I think that goes a long way towards explaining the uneven story-telling here. When all is said and done, I felt like I had the beginning of a great story, and the ending of a good story.
The finale isn’t enough to render this a book I would recommend again, but it is enough to prevent me from urging you to rush out and read it. However, the first half alone offers a unique setting, and Rupert Wong is an engaging character. The writing carries the book, and Khaw does a magnificent job of giving Wong his own voice and letting you see the world through the eyes of an unwilling servant of the gods. If you can accept that the book will end much weaker than it starts, give it a shot. I think you’ll find it satisfying.