Food of the gods

Cassandra Khaw

Book - 2017

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Science fiction
Osney Mead, Oxford, UK : Abaddon Books 2017.
Item Description
"Rupert Wong, cannibal chef ©2015 Rebellion. Rupert Wong and the ends of the Earth ©2017 Rebellion."--Title page verso.
Physical Description
238 pages ; 23 cm
Main Author
Cassandra Khaw (-)
  • Rupert Wong, cannibal chef
  • Rupert Wong and the ends of the Earth.
Review by New York Times Review

IN THE ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE Weird West of Maurice Broaddus's BUFFALO SOLDIER (Tom Doherty, paper, $14.99), an ex-spy battles hunters determined to capture the terrifying weapon he's stolen. It's an exciting, if familiar, plot - but Broaddus shows little interest in predictable adventure narratives. Instead he packs this slim novella with alternate American history, fantastic technology and fatherson bonding, for a far more surprising and satisfying result. The setting is an America divided into three nations: Albion, where the Revolutionary War never happened and the slave trade never ended; the lands of the "Five Civilized Tribes," where American and Canadian First Nations have fortified to hold the West; and Tejas (basically, Texas). The ex-spy is Desmond Coke, a dapper gentleman from a free Jamaica. His stolen prize is a boy named Lij, the genetically engineered clone of the Rastafarian messiah Haile Selassie. Arrayed against him are the dehumanizing forces of laissez-faire capitalism, including the deadly telepathic Pinkerton agent known as Cayt Siringo. Cayt is a sympathetic antagonist, having been cruelly weaponized through applied racist pseudoscience, but she is utterly relentless, and she means to weaponize Lij in the same manner. It's the latest salvo in a Victorian-era technological cold war in which inhumane human experimentation is the bleeding edge. Shades of Henrietta Lacks and Tuskegee loom between every paragraph. Desmond's goal is simple yet poignant: to reach the Five Civilized Tribes, where he hopes to claim asylum and raise Lij as a son. Lij is one of the novella's few weak points; while his quasi-autistic presentation and relationship with Desmond are beautifully rendered, he has little agency in the story, and effectively functions as its damsel in distress. The story's prose is likewise awkward, sometimes slipping into didacticism and repetition. Possibly the editor got distracted by all the robot wolves, armored pistolwielding cyborgs and Obeah-based science - the reader certainly will, anyway. A wild, satisfying ride awaits. IN A FUTURE OF NIGHTMARISH climate change and rampant oligarchy, a small group of people live and work in an underground lab facility called the Needle, hoping to master something akin to faster-than-light travel: This is the concept behind PROOF OF CONCEPT (Tom Doherty, paper, $14.99), by Gwyneth Jones. Should they succeed, humankind has a chance of colonizing exoplanets too far to reach by means of conventional space travel. For one year, the Needle is to be sealed offto test the new technology. Then, however, members of the group begin mysteriously dying. It's leftto Kir, a young girl with a quantum artificial intelligence implanted in her brain, to muddle through what's happening. Muddling along with Kir will likely be many readers, because this densely written novella starts in medias res and only gets more obtuse. There's good stuffhere, certainly; this is classic "idea" science fiction, high concept and high tech, chock full of stufflike beyond-Standard-Model physics and four-dimensional spacetime. The difficulty lies in the fact that the novella is high-immersion as well. Acronyms abound, many of them without explanation or context, and since the point of view is tightly limited to Kir (who naturally doesn't bother to explain concepts that are second nature to her), the learning curve for this story never quite levels out. Compounding this problem are awkward characterizations, a lack of urgency and surprisingly old-fashioned worldbuilding whiffs. Society is ruled by unimaginatively named "MegaCorps," while citizens fret over Thought Crimes. At several points characters espouse beliefs straight out of old Zero Population Growth pamphlets. And while the story is set after the 23rd century, characters still clumsily struggle with the concept of non-binary gender and pronoun usage. Science fiction, it is often said, interrogates not the future but the present - and Jones's comfort with modern theoretical physics is noticeably offset by her discomfort with modern social sciences. The ideas here are powerful, but muted by the storytelling. Lovers of idea stories may enjoy investing the necessary time and concentration, however. TO COMPARE Cat Sparks's new novel, LOTUS BLUE (Talos, paper, $15.99), to the "Mad Max" films would be a disservice despite the obvious parallels: vehicle caravans roaming deserts, warlords and lawless violence everywhere, a few strongholds of near-civilization battened down against the encroachment of barbarism. Yet Sparks's post-apocalyptic wasteland is far more imaginative and richly rendered. More than mere warlords threaten the ragged survivors of this world. Rampant biotech and unchecked corporate greed have leftit littered with still-functioning weapons of immense destructive capability. A number of characters journey through this dying terrain, intent upon their own agendas - all of which are disrupted when a powerful sentient war machine awakens in the desert and promptly sets about making everything worse. The badlands are the draw here, from their "mechabeasts" and fortress cities to the Obsidian Sea where terrible weapons have blasted the earth. Sparks frames all of this in haunting, near-poetic detail, such that readers can smell the toxic red sand and perhaps taste the blood. There's an interesting mystery in the form of the protagonist, 17-year-old Star, who craves a better life and has a puzzling metal splinter growing from her arm. Apart from this splinter, however, the biggest mystery about Star is why Sparks has made her such a self-centered cliché; in this stark world, it's difficult to believe her sullenness could be a survival trait. Other denizens of the wasteland receive still less of Sparks's imaginative attention, even as they struggle against living storms, radiation and whalelike singing biomechanoid tankers. There's a lot going on here, but it's difficult to care about the people it's happening to. Nevertheless, recommended for people who crave fresh post-apocalyptic chaos - because Sparks's postapocalyptic chaos is pretty fresh, at that. "PANTHEONS WILL FIGHT and they will bicker. Such is the way of siblings. It's a small matter. Don't think too much of it." This is the point at which Rupert Wong - indentured servant of the 10 Chinese Hells, arbiter for undead spirits, boyfriend of a hungry ghost - seems to realize he's on his own in FOOD OF THE GODS (Abaddon, paper, $15), the delightful new novel by Cassandra Khaw. In Khaw's version of modern-day Kuala Lumpur, the supernatural is real, hungry and attempting to unionize. Every possible pantheon of gods exists right down to the ones conjured from fiction; they are potentially numberless and powered by human belief. There's a place among the numinous for the right kind of mortal, and Rupert makes a tentative, if ugly, living here and on the edges of Kuala Lumpur's underworld. Things become much uglier when the Dragon of the South hires Rupert to investigate his daughter's murder. This puts Rupert smack at the center of what might very well be a brewing war between the Chinese, Greek and other godly pantheons . . . most of which want a pound (at least) of Rupert's flesh. It's madcap, macabre and violently funny. And if the humor is occasionally clunky (as in Rupert's regrettable lapses into Buffyspeak), Khaw's metaphor-rich, sensual prose more than makes up for it. For the most part Rupert's voice works; he's explicitly talking to the presumed reader, the non-Malaysians consuming this Englishlanguage tale, and the constant breaking of the fourth wall enhances a mythic feel for this otherwise gritty tale. The more creative descriptions of gore, and the special guest appearance of one pantheon in particular, pull the tale somewhere into the interstitial space between urban fantasy and horror, but brave readers will be richly rewarded if they choose to follow. It's probably safe. N. K. JEMISIN won a 2016 Hugo Award for her novel "The Fifth Season." Her latest book is its sequel, "The Obelisk Gate." Her column on science fiction and fantasy appears six times a year.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 3, 2017] Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Khaw's first full-length novel (a fix-up of two previously published novellas) is a gut-punch of a reading experience that swings the reader disturbingly between laughing out loud and beginning to retch. In a dense setting of degenerate old gods in the modern age, Rupert Wong-bureaucrat in the Chinese Hell, high-end chef to ghouls who dine on human flesh, and home to a large collection of ghosts who live in his tattoos-is drawn unwillingly into investigating a dispute provoked by the death of the daughter of the Dragon King. His search for a solution sends him from Kuala Lumpur to London, where the Greek gods desire both his culinary skills and his supernatural connections. Descriptive imagery dances viscerally on the edge between the delicious and the disgusting; clever wordplay twines with heavy profanity; the mood flips rapidly among comedy, horror, and tenderness. This amazing book is perfect for foodies, readers of modernized mythology and light supernaturals, and fans of the smart, underpowered survivor who wins in the face of cosmic might and mundane brawn. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved