As private chef to several of the Renaissance Popes, Bartolomeo Scappi has seen his share of illicit love affairs and court intrigue. But when Bartolomeo dies, leaving dozens of journals written in cipher, his nephew and successor, Giovanni, discovers that Bartolomeo had a far more active role in those affairs and intrigue than anyone might ever suspect. With the help of his friend Valentino and his lover Isabetta, Giovanni painstakingly decodes the journals that Bartolomeo had ordered to be destroyed, only to learn to his dismay that vendettas from the past can still break through to the present. Giovanni becomes the keeper of his uncle’s razor-sharp kitchen knife, his uncle’s highly sought-after recipes, and most importantly, his uncle’s dangerous secrets. Who was the mysterious noblewoman with whom Bartolomeo was having an affair? What crimes did Bartolomeo dare for the sake of love? And what price will Giovanni have to pay for this forbidden knowledge?
As in her last book, Feast of Sorrow, Crystal King explores the gastronomical world of long ago. The excesses of one pope clash vibrantly against the monastic abstemiousness of the next one. Venice, in particular, comes to life with all the sights, sounds, and smells of the winding streets and ubiquitous canals.
While the atmosphere of the book is one of its best features, the storyline took a while to grab me. The opening chapter had so many names that it took me a while to untangle what was going on. Once Giovanni began his decoding, the plot thickened to an appetizing porridge. Perhaps due to the time constraints of a dual storyline, however, it felt like many of the characters themselves were fairly flat. Bartolomeo, his mysterious Stella, and Giovanni jump from the pages as living beings, but I wanted to know more about Isabetta, Valentino, and even Cesare (Gio’s jealous brother).
By the end, I found myself not really liking any of the main characters. Bartolomeo’s crimes committed for love seem fated to be repeated again by Giovanni, and although the book held my interest, I finished it with a vague sense of disastisfaction.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.