Thrasius is the most valuable slave the market has ever seen. When the gourmand Apicius purchases him, the price is twenty thousand denarii. As a trained cook and crafter of recipes, Thrasius has the potential to make his owner famous, and that is what Apicius desires most of all.
Thrasius finds an almost secure but never quite comfortable place in Apicius’ household. Driven by his master’s whims, he spends mountains of sestertii on exotic food, expensive tableware, and attractive slaves, trying to help Apicius catch the emperor’s eye and become the imperial gastronomic adviser. Thrasius’ own ambitions drive him too–the ambition to create the most sumptuous food imaginable and present it with creativity and finesse. Although Apicius runs hot and cold toward his cook depending on circumstance, Thrasius finds deep affection for Aelia, his master’s wife, and Apicata, the beautiful little daughter of the house. He finds friendship with Sotas, the Egyptian body slave who guards Apicius night and day. And he finds love with Passia, Apicata’s graceful attendant and a fellow slave in the household.
As the empire transitions from Augustus’ rule to Tiberius’, however, dark days are ahead. The maniacally cruel Sejanus has both Tiberius’ ear and control of the Praetorian guard. He also holds a secret that could ruin Apicius, and because of that, everyone in Aspicius’ household must pay dearly. Even as Thrasius authors a cookbook and runs a cooking school (both of which bear Apicius’ name), he begins to wonder if his dreams of freedom and marriage for himself and Passia will ever be satisfied or if the glittering feasts he creates are destined to be nothing more than a masque for sorrow and despair.
This book lived up to its name in many ways. Crystal King is a wordsmith with the power to immerse the reader in each scene, and the words on the page were a veritable feast. The history of Rome was skillfully told and the lives of both patricians and slaves delineated with unabashed realism. The humor in Lindsey Davis’ Falco books is absent in this novel, and the chillingly depraved realities of Roman society are not glossed over. Thrasius and Passia both know that, as slaves, their bodies are not their own. Patrician women have little more freedom, beaten and raped by their husbands with no recourse. As the years go by, Apicata as well as Aelia are required to act the proper Roman matron, obeying their husbands unflinchingly in the face of unadulterated evil. Thrasius, even after attaining the status of freedman, is never free of Apicius’ demands on his time, his abilities, and his loyalty. Throughout it all, the characters’ hatreds, fears, loves, and hopes overflow from the pages, propelling the plot along inexorably to its final resolution.
In many ways, this book sums up life in imperial Rome–a riotous, Epicurean feast of debauchery that seeks for immortal fame and leads instead to the emptiness of death and despair. A harsh read, but a compelling one. Recommended.
Crystal King’s second novel, The Chef’s Secret, is set in Renaissance Italy and is slated to be released in February of 2019.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.