Review By Kris Vyas-Myall
Last year I first read Cassandra Khaw’s work and was absolutely astounded by the quality of her writing. It seems she can turn her hand to anything, whether it is the intensity of Breathe, the dexterity of Speak or the weirdness of Hammers on Bone. She has so far not got anywhere near as much attention as she deserves, so hopefully this fabulous book will help change that.
In the Rupert Wong stories she creates a wonderfully strange world that we are thrown into head-first. Landing straight on the first page with interlinked discussions of unionisation and cannibalism whilst soon learning how HIV is the ‘It’ flavour. You quickly realise this is a reading experience not quite like any other.
In less skilled hands this could, of course, be an absolute mess. However, Khaw is true master of the written word. I get the sense even if she was hired to write a McDonald’s menu it would be exciting and fun and thrilling. She understands not just how to write beautifully, but the way form, structure, style, and rhythm change how the reader receives the work. In contrast to some of her short fiction she makes use of an elaborate vocabulary, rather than stripped down rawness, and then counterpointed with a punchline. For example:
Do you know what an ageing ex-mobster moonlighting as a gastronomical genius for hire does for fun, ang moh?
He plays Dance Dance Revolution.
Essentially much of it is written as one might approach a very elaborate standup routine, allowing it to be equal parts humorous, enlightening and unnerving.
But at the same time there is something harsh and tragic about Rupert Wong’s world. One where he is working off his karmic debts whilst grinding up tourists for food and working for terrifying mythical bosses.
Rupert himself is also shown to be a complicated character. At times he seems like an asshole game player, a kind of culinary John Constantine. But at others he is very kindly and thoughtful, appearing that his humour is as much a shield as a part of his character.
I think it is also important to praise the great sense of place she gives us. Whilst I have never been to Kuala Lumpur, Khaw is able to make it permeate off the page into every sense. When the story later moves to Croydon it is described in a manner that is at once ridiculous and entirely accurate.
This locational move is also important for highlighting the political nature of her work. So much of it is built around colonialism and the contrasting of the two cities allows for a much more fully rounded examination. Whilst for myself London moves it to the familiar from the new but that reaction will obviously depend upon your own knowledge. For Rupert the situation would be the opposite. We also get to see the themes of control fully explored as it moves from being a story where Rupert is in control to one confronted by unfathomable odds. Don’t want to discuss in too much depth the direction the ending goes in but it is both signalled and surprising.
I can understand there are some criticisms people could make of Food of the Gods. The most obvious (albeit very minor) one, is that very much feels like three novellas put together. More a fix-up novel or collection than a book in its own right. I personally thoroughly enjoy these but I know some people can bounce off them. Second is the use of regular pop cultural references. I am not a usually fan of these but I think in this case it works as they are used to great humorous effect. Finally, the fact that it came out at the same time as the American Gods TV series means there will definitely be some parallels drawn between the two. And whilst there is some overlap it is absolutely its own beast and in no way derivative.
But I don’t want to get bogged down in too much criticism or the more serious aspects. In a story where we see an ex-gang member in a long-distance relationship with a ghost, startling imagery like the body train (you’ll remember when you get to it) and dragons are definitely not mythic beauties, it is an experience that should be lived through and enjoyed.
This book continues to demonstrate why Cassandra Khaw is one of the most exciting new authors writing in the field of fantasy. If you haven’t already tried her this is a great place to start. If you have then what are you waiting for? Get it now!