‘Kraken Bake’ by Karen Dudley
Take Ancient Greek mythology, mix it with modern celebrity cooking sensibilities, and you’re left with a refreshing take on stories we’ve heard told and retold far too many times for our own good. Breaking the molds is at the core of Kraken Bake.
The second book from author Karen Dudley in the story of Pelops, Kraken Bake picks up with our intrepid hero/chef after the events of Food for the Gods [also reviewed in TWR here]. Pelops, the mortal grandson of Zeus with an ivory shoulder, has carved out a niche for himself as a chef with a rising star in Athens. Unfortunately, that star has thoroughly stalled thanks to his enemies, Mithaecus the chef and Poseidon the god. Posiedon is still angry after Pelops rebuffed his affections. Water, which Poseidon controls, tends to betray Pelops whenever possible. It’s kind of a big issue for a chef. But the problems don’t stop there for Pelops.
Enter the Kraken. If you’re familiar with Greek classics or at least the film work of Ray Harryhausen, then you have some idea of how the Kraken fits into the picture. Poseidon unleashed the massive sea monster on a city that offended the gods. Perseus, a hero and son of Zeus, defeated the Kraken by turning it to stone using the head of Medusa. But what if the head only killed the Kraken instead of making a lovely but large statue out of it? You’d be left with a very large pile of sea monster meat that just won’t go bad.
In Dudley’s version of events, an endless stream of meat from its corpse has shown up in Athenian markets since the defeat of the Kraken, with little or no other fish. And thanks to his beef with Poseidon, Pelops finds himself thoroughly unable to cook it. The Kraken might be tougher for Pelops to cook than it was for Perseus to kill. When that’s your main ingredient for virtually every meal and a devious arch-rival like Mithaecus is breathing down your neck, your career as a chef is toast.
Dudley has proven herself an expert at examining the Greek classics and offering the reader an entirely new take on them by weaving in Food Network tropes we’re all familiar with. Mithaecus is the perfect example of the ubiquitous celebrity chef with dubious skills who panders to the masses. He’s even the inventor of a product called Kraken Bake, a simple and popular dredge used by anyone to make the never ending supply of Kraken relatively palatable. And where does this duo go to settle their differences? To the Bronze Chef, of course.
Athens’ inaugural chef showdown is the perfect take on the prolific competitive food shows, specifically Iron Chef. Though it takes him a while to get there, Pelops eventually sees it as a way to boost his career as a chef. And if it all goes wrong, it could be a great starting point for his career as a carpenter.
While this is a great read, the stakes for Pelops in Kraken Bake feel a lot lower than in the first book. After all, no one is cutting him up and quite literally feeding him to the gods this time around. Due to the lower stakes, Kraken Bake lacks some of the tension found in Food for the Gods, though it makes up for that in other ways.
The comedy that comes from adapting those contemporary Food Network culture tropes into this ancient Greek setting is even more important because of the tension shift. They make the story engaging, interesting, and frequently funny, but it’s the arrival of Perseus at the home of Archestratus and the realization of the opportunity he represents to Pelops that finally gets things moving.
And so, although it would pain me to give such superior fish away, the rewards could prove more than worth the loss. With such a treat, Archestratus could not fail to be impressed with my culinary skills. A single taste of my stripped red mullet, and he would have no choice – indeed, no other desire – but to hire me for Perseus’s victory feast.
Up until this point, the reader feels a bit like they’re treading water as all the characters and Pelop’s relationships with them are introduced and explained. Dudley does to a good job of keeping the lay of the land we get in the first few chapters from being dry exposition, but it’s still slow going off the start. We’re a few chapters in before Pelops makes the decision to enter the Bronze Chef competition and attempt to use Perseus to help raise his stature. He spends too much time lamenting his circumstances and dodging the idea of entering the Bronze Chef competition. Even though it’s obvious he has to enter it, the arrival of Perseus ultimately forces him to reconsider. Once he accepts this and his plan comes into focus, the pace picks up and the story becomes more intriguing.
Kraken Bake is a marvelous book full of humor and interesting interpretations of classic stories, and it’s a great follow up to Food for the Gods. Though the first few chapters feel a lot like setting the table, the main course of the story is a finely cooked meal that’s a delight to consume.
Ravenstone | 432 pages | $16.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0888014665