The mythology of ancient Greece is a wonderful world to play in, and with Kraken Bake, Canadian author Karen Dudley does an excellent job of taking characters and gods we already know and adding her own spice to it. What she has created is both familiar and new, feeling like a combination of comic books and the swords and sandals era. This world is a place where gods and legendary heroes not only exist and walk among us, but can be troublesome, vengeful bastards as well, all set in the Ancient Athens, sometimes referred to as the ‘cradle of Western civilization’.
The story centers around our hero, Chef Pelops, who was a prince with the misfortune of being killed and cooked by his own father as an offering to the gods. But all is not lost as he is later resurrected and becomes a chef, but not before offending and consequently being cursed by the god of the sea, Poseidon.
The first book, called Food of the Gods, is all about that. Kraken Bake is a sequel… so you may be wondering if reading the first book is necessary to understand what’s going on. Thankfully, that is not the case. Although there are references to events in the previous novel, you won’t be lost if you didn’t read it.
In Kraken Bake, Chef Pelops’ chief problem is Poseidon’s curse, which costs him his culinary abilities – he can’t cook kraken to save his life! Making matters worse, the legendary Perseus has just slain the dreaded beast (last seen in 2010’s regrettable Clash of the Titans), meaning that all the food markets and stalls have been full of kraken, and not much else, for weeks and weeks. And weeks.
In response, the city of Athens announces the inaugural “Bronze Chef Competition”, which is basically the Iron Chef of the Bronze Age, complete with secret ingredient, which, given the overabundance of it, is sure to be kraken.
Billed as an ‘epicurean epic’, Kraken Bake isn’t afraid to shake things up, taking creative liberties with heroes and gods alike in amusing and unexpected ways. One notable example is how the kraken dies. In the myths, when Perseus uses Medusa’s severed head, it immediately dies and turns into stone. But for the story’s sake, once the kraken is killed, it doesn’t turn into stone, and it also does not rot (but since it’s a mythological sea monster, why not? I’m not looking for realism).
Some of the best parts are the interactions Chef Pelops has with the gods, who aren’t your typical perfect, all knowing, divine beings you may think of when you hear the word ‘god’. The Greek gods were every bit as dramatic and jealous as the cast of your average reality TV show, with all the petty feuds and sex you can imagine that entails. And probably even more than you can imagine, since they’re, y’know, gods. From Ares’ love of carousing in the seediest dive bars, to the goddess of love’s stunning beauty having a decidedly Medusa-like effect on a certain part of any man who sees her, the gods always make things interesting.
Coming in at almost 500 pages, it goes surprisingly fast, because, unlike the Iliad or Odyssey, Kraken Bake was not written in dactylic hexameter. If your only experience with classical mythology was struggling through the Iliad or Odyssey in English, you’ll be relieved to find out that it’s written in regular, modern prose. Well, aside from some accents, like the sailors with those thick Cockney accents where the letter ‘H’ becomes an apostrophe. But in the end, you need no notes; Spark, Cliff’s, or otherwise.
Karen Dudley does an impressive job of building an immersive world. Her descriptions of the bustling marketplace of the Agora, the temples, and other happenings in Athens really gave me a feeling of “A Day in the Life”. And although Pelops is no average, everyday normal guy (his grandfather is Zeus!), he’s definitely not a hero on the same level as Jason (of the Argonauts), Perseus, or Heracles (aka Hercules). In a way, it felt like seeing the ancient world from the eyes of a more normal person, and I really got a feel for what life might have been like for the common people.
I also liked the little touches, like how every few chapters there would be something extra, such as a full page ad for one of the local marketplace merchants. Also included were a few of Chef Pelops’ very own recipes, including the mouth watering Hares in Wine. It’s also because of this book that I know it’s supposed to be pronounced kracken, not krayken. Believe me, Chef Pelops was quite particular about the pronunciation.
Kraken Bake is a fun read, and I’d probably recommend it to a friend, especially if they had an interest in Greek mythology. It really works both as a sequel and as an introduction, and after having just finished reading it, I’ve seriously been considering checking out Food for the Gods.