Eternal Life, by Dara Horn

35667296What is a human life worth? For a mother like Rachel, the protagonist of Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, the life of her son is worth everything she can give. But, in her rush to save her son, Rachel neglects to read the fine print when she gives up her death so that her son will survive a terrible illness. Ever since that day two thousand years ago, Rachel has been wandering the earth raising family after family, wondering if it was really worth it.

The first hints that not all is right with Rachel come when she refers to her very many sons and daughters, more than a woman could ever have in one lifetime. Then there are all the languages she knows and occupations she’s held over the centuries. Above all else, there’s her deep fatigue and questions about what she’s really living for. For Rachel, death would be a chance to rest once and for all.

We meet Rachel as she’s coming to the realization that the time has come for her to do her disappearing act. As far as her children and grandchildren are aware, she’s in her eighties. She looks decades younger though, and the fact that she’s not about to shuffle off her mortal coil any time soon is about to become awkward. In the past, it was easier to start over somewhere else. Now it requires so much documentation to set up a life that it’s almost impossible to help. The only other person with Rachel’s predicament, Elazar, offers to help, but she still hasn’t forgiven him for the time Elazar got her first husband killed.

Eternal Life moves back and forth between the present and Rachel and Elazar’s first life in Jerusalem a few decades before the destruction of the Second Temple. Horn has a gift for bringing that time and place back to life, though that is partially due to Rachel’s vibrance as a character. I honestly wish this book had been longer, because not only does it only touch on Jewish history, but it also asks interesting questions about whether there should be limits to what parents do for their children. Rachel might make the same choice again, but is it worth creating and leaving family after family to save the life of one mortal child? Thankfully, we learn Rachel’s answer in the end…but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what it is because I’m not going to give it away here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 23 January 2018.

Feast of Sorrow, by Crystal King

In Feast of Sorrow, Crystal King takes the few known historical details about the life of patrician Marcus Gavius Apicius and the cookbook named after him to create a captivating look into high Roman society in the first century CE. Through the eyes of Thrasius, Apicius’ enslaved cook, we see decades of political wrangling and lots and lots of cooking. Feast of Sorrow is deliciously rich in period detail—though I think I’ll hold off on making some of the provided recipes as I’m not all that fond of dormouse.

The novel opens with the day Apicius—one of the richest men of his time—buys Thrasius. He’s heard that Thrasius is a remarkable cook and Apicius believes that he will rise to fame by advising Caesar on food, wine, and fine dining. Fortunately for Thrasius, the young man is a gifted cook and inventor of recipes. Thrasius is given free reign in the kitchen and any supplies he wishes from across the Empire. The only difficulty is managing Apicious’ mercurial moods. The patrician is desperate for lasting fame, so desperate that he ignores a haruspex‘s prophecy that the harder Apicius’ seeks after fame, the more personal calamity he’ll suffer.

Because Feast of Sorrow follows Apicius’ life, the plot is highly biographical and episodic rather than focused. Some readers might find it meandering. I couldn’t fault the book for that because I was too interested in what Thrasius was cooking up in the kitchen and because Apicius was close enough to Emperor Tiberius‘ circle to get caught up in the machinations of Lucius Aelius Sejanus. The politics alone (more vicious and dangerous than modern politics, if only because of the liberal use of poison) would have been enough to keep me interested. I was hooked enough that I didn’t run to Wikipedia to find out how everything ended before I finished the book.

I was hooked by the food, even if the Romans were willing to eat parts of animals that we don’t even put in hotdogs nowadays. King took her inspiration from the Apicius, the oldest extant cookbook, and did her best to bring it all to life. (King provides a few updated recipes on her site for the bold.) Throughout the book, Thrasius experiments with new ways of not just preparing food but preparing animals for slaughter by feeding them delicacies. Because of Thrasius’ work and creativity, Apicius does rise—though he also becomes notorious for his profligacy with money and his alleged gluttony (as confirmed by Pliny, who appears in a brief cameo).

King’s descriptions of Apicius and Thrasius’ monumental feasts made me wish I could go back in time just for a glimpse. On top of these sumptuous passages, King gives us drama and pathos. If one doesn’t mind a plot that wanders through a historical life, this book is a terrific read.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 25 April 2017.