Friday, May 31, 2024

Book Review: A Thousand Recipes for Revenge by Beth Cato

Following the lives of an extraordinary mother and daughter: the former secretly a sorceress in a world based on food magic, and the latter an adopted princess who learns of her adoptive nature and her own magical gift

Ada has a problem. Ever since deserting the Verdanian army and not wanting to use her food-based magic for them any longer, she has been living in secret, scrabbling out an existence with her grandmother, hoping to keep her head down and safe. When an assassin comes to disrupt her life, she realizes the fragile peace she had found is gone.

In the meantime, the daughter she never got to know, Solenn, thinks she is the blood daughter of the royal family of Braiz. She is, in fact, Ada's daughter, and soon discovers, as she is being betrothed to a Prince from Verdania, that she is a sorceress of food magic, a chef, herself. She finds this out even as it is clear someone is trying to poison and kill her betrothed, and frame her for the deed.

Ada and Solenn's converging stories are the main ingredients in Beth Cato's A Thousand Recipes for Revenge.

While there is much to talk about the worldbuilding here, and naturally, readers of my reviews know I will have much to say about it. I want to start with the two main characters and their slowly intertwining lives. Even now, in 2024, it is uncommon, as we have here in A Thousand Recipes for Revenge, that the main characters and the main driver in that social sphere are a mother and daughter, even if they do not know each other personally, or even know of each other's existence. That Cato would choose a pair of female characters as her leads is not the surprising thing, given her previous fiction. The mother-daughter pairing is what is unusual here, and most welcome as a change from the usual set of characters for such a story.

What's more, the novel starts off with Ada and her grandmother, an elderly woman whose faculties are slowly slipping. Having had a friend whose wife has had to be put into memory care very recently, and also my own mother's last days, this subplot definitely hit me with additional resonance and power. Grandmere's plight, and how Ada must deal with it even as assassins come down on her head, give the book extra emotional depth and development.

Cato does take her time with the reveal to the characters (although the book matter and things external to the book make it clear to the reader that this unexpected reunion is coming) that Ada and Solenn are mother and daughter and that their stories are on a collision course. There is a good deal of plot going on, plot that does depend on really engaging with the worldbuilding that's presented in order to appreciate it. Even with Ada and Solenn as the centerpieces of this work from a character point of view, the rest of the meal of the plot takes a lot of background work before it can be plated for the reader's consumption, and that's where the worldbuilding comes in.

So let's get into the worldbuilding. This is a book that garnishes its pages with the magic system, which is based on five food-oriented deities. All magic is tied to food in this realm, either in the special senses and empathy magic-using cooks (called chefs) have, or in the use of special ingredients to achieve magical effects. Some of these don't require a chef in order to activate; others require a culinary preparation in order to achieve their effects. But all chefs derive their gifts from one of five deities, and there are various skill levels and levels of ability to the magic.

Cato uses Ada in a bit of an "as you know" sort of mode to give us the finer details of magical ingredients and how magic works on a fine level. She is extremely experienced and has a lot of background knowledge, and so details on what the magical part of the plot against her and others comes through Ada's resource as a source of information on these ingredients. Solenn, on the other hand, gives us the "new to the magic" perspective that allows us to understand the basic assumptions, rules and more that Ada takes for granted. Solenn already knows some of this intellectually—chefs are common, and a lot of what they can do (but not everything!) is something Solenn understood on a basic level. Having the new senses of being a chef thrust upon her, suddenly and unexpectedly, allows us to taste and feel what it is like to become a chef in a way we don't get from Ada's perspective.

It should also be said, continuing in the vein of characters, that while there are plenty of male characters, this is a story that is not just the two leads in a sea of men. There are plenty of secondary female characters as well, in all walks of life, and it gives the book a very inhabited feel.

There are also some in-world quotes at the beginning of chapters from a couple of books, including, notably, one that purports to be a guide for cooks (that is to say, people who prepare food but do not have the magic gift) to be able to try and prepare food on the level of chefs. I was charmed by the epigraphs from this imaginary book, especially because of the worldbuilding it reveals, as well as the esprit of the novel. This is a novel that loves food, thinks about food, on a variety of axes. What does it mean to prepare food for yourself, or others? To share a meal with someone? Even way beyond the magic, this book makes food, which is often a key ingredient in many fantasy novels, from Samwise Gamgee cooking potatoes all the way to Wren Valere grabbing a pumpernickel bagel with a schmear on it, and makes that the center of the novel. There is an unstated but to me clear message to the novel that you don't have to be a high chef in order to enjoy food and understand food and prepare food, and that is a message I can definitely get behind. The novel is a love letter to the power of food.

As far as the worldbuilding outside of the magic itself, it's set in a multiversal variant of Western Europe that, based on external cues, appears to be around the 18th century. That certainly is the feel of technology as well as fashion and politics. There are monarchs and prime ministers, but not yet anything like an Industrial Revolution. Albion is England, Verdania is most of France, but there is a separate land of Braiz which is an independent kingdom that covers, in terms of our geography, Brittany and Normandy. It's much weaker than either Albion or Verdania, and so is always a potential pawn between the two. As the plot unfolds, especially for Solenn, adoptive princess of the Braiz royal family sent to Verdania for a marriage alliance, we see the problems of having two rather dangerous neighbors.

The novel takes communities and bonds and the presence of how they work in this world seriously and does not neglect women in any level of society. One bit of egalitarianism that belies its real-world models (as seen above) is that, while women do have somewhat restricted rights in keeping with the social and political models, women (primarily chefs) are definitely drafted into the military as easily as male chefs are. Ada is AWOL, of course, but it is clear her grandmother served in the military as well, and this is seen as being natural and normal. At one point, when Ada is trying to pose as a mercenary, the fact of her gender is not an issue at all to her prospective employers—only her competence.

The novel slowly builds, like a layer cake, layer by layer of worldbuilding and character development, and, especially, plotting. It takes quite a while for Ada and Solenn to even know of the other's existence, much less to meet, but the action sequences which punctuate the book like peppercorns in soup become a barrage of spices by the end of the novel. I think the novel gets a bit unwieldy by the end (this is first in a series, mind) as some revelations about the world that are new to the character themselves come into play, but it feels a little backloaded and top heavy, novel-wise. The real scope of the conflict and the themes of the novel (and series) only get full play in the back quarter of the book.

The novel does have a lot of interesting things to say about war, duty, sacrifice, and the bonds of a mother-daughter relationship. It's a complex and tasty world that Cato has created here, and I admit to curiosity, now that the complex and laden charcuterie board is fully set up by the end of this novel, just where the conflicts and issues of the series go in the second novel. The ending of this novel's roughness, as well as the nature of the series, means that there is no easy offramping, or leaving the set table, after this book, if you want to only go into one volume in this series.


  • Strong mother-daughter relationship, and a good cast of female supporting characters too
  • Inventive and interesting food based magic
  • Entertainingly and enchantingly written, with Cato's verve and skill

Reference: Cato, Beth. A Thousand Recipes for Revenge [47 North, 2023].

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.