Here’s what I love about Tom Bruno’s “Woks and Swords and Sorcery” novel, Confessions of a Gourmand or, How to Cook a Dragon (henceforth called “Confessions…” for brevity’s sake): It defines the promise that can be found in self published novels.
What to wear for this novel: blue jeans, a white shirt, hiking boots(as you will be doing some traveling), a clean, heavy chef’s apron (to catch the blood spatters), and (of course) a chef’s hat.
If this book were an animal; I don’t know what kind of animal it would be, but it would have been roasted for several days in an earthen cooking pit and then served with many marvelous sauces.
If this book were a drink, it would be Palmlands’ green wine, preferably served with some dinosaur skewers and marinated in the spicy talihi sauce so common to the Third Continent.
To begin with, “Confessions…” constructs a whole new subgenre of fantasy fiction, giving us “foodie” writing (and even whole recipes) in a setting that is an alchemized blend of high fantasy (Think Lord of the Rings), our own world (most recognizable: Italy and China), and occasional nods to fairy tale absurdity (My favorite example being the story of the land of Belil in the Cloud Cities, where good meals are the object of worship and the streets are deliberately paved in a confusing fashion to make it hard for foodies to find the trendiest diners.)
Of course this could all have been a recipe (pun intended) for disaster, except that Bruno rises to the challenge with excellent plotting skills (including smart and well-engineered plot twists), a driving narrative voice, and a passion for food (if the author does not love cooking and food, then he’s an incredible fake).
Here’s a bit of reader history. In 2011, I took a writing workshop at Grubstreet Writers in Boston. While there, I made the acquaintance of a local writer, Edmung Jorgensen (author of Speculation.), and we later became Facebook friends. Edmund was also FB friends with Tom Bruno. At some point in 2011 or 2012 (I honestly don’t remember), Bruno ran an ad campaign for “Confessions…” on Facebook. He must have somehow targeted it to “friends of friends”, because an ad for the eBook (and “Confessions…” is only an eBook. As far as I know, you cannot get it in print.) kept popping up on my screen.
At first I ignored the ad, as I tend to ignore most ads on the web, but it gradually won me over. The idea of a foodie-fantasy was a totally new one (Or new to me anyway. There are millions of books out there and, presumably, someone must have done it before). The other fact that won me over was that it was self published. As a small-press writer myself, I am sensitive to giving as much attention to small press and self published authors as I am to those published by the big presses, so I ordered the free preview for my Kindle and started reading about how best to approach the dangerous process of prepping a wild-caught dragon for roasting.
What immediately struck me was the confidence of the prose; strong phrasing combined with a dynamic narrative voice that reminded me (of all people) of Hunter S. Thompson’s first person narrative in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, not so much in tone, but for the ability to blend a passion for detail with narrative drive and the sense of persona. In Fear and Loathing, the passion is for drugs, and the persona (Raul Duke) is driven by the need to be a malcontent, a gadfly in the face of mainstream America. In “Confessions…” our narrator / protagonist, Van d’Allamitri, is driven by a passion for food that is so all-consuming (hey- another pun!) that (in certain cases) it rivals Duke’s hunger for mood altering substances. Anyway, I don’t want to make much out of this comparison (because the books are incredibly different) except to point you to the fact that both novels are driven by a fabulous narrative voice.
And just how does “Confessions…” fulfill the potential of what a self-published novel might be?
First, it unapologetically defies market expectations. Not having to bend itself to the marketing plan of any agent or publisher means that “Confessions…” can embrace the punk rock ethos of being true to itself. How else can you get a novel that is part cookbook, part epic fantasy and yet wholly its own thing? It is allowed to be original.
Also, the plot is finely woven. Bigger plots are deviously folded within smaller ones. Moments and scenes that appear to be incidental in nature later reveal themselves to be part of a grander tapestry. Bruno also has the mystery writer’s gift of withholding story until the right moment, giving us clues and critical bits of exposition only when it matters most. Of course, this type of game can get old fast, but he does it rarely enough (and with enough breathing room between incidents) that it works in his favor.
Then there is the food itself. “Confessions…” has got got some appetizing descriptions, especially when it comes to recipes involving roasts and accompanying sauces made out of garlic, ginger and hot papers. Some passages made me very hungry (Specifically, they made me want to go out and get barbecue)
Finally, the narrative carries a lot of understated savagery. Honestly I’m not even sure this book will work for vegetarians or vegans. There are graphic descriptions of killing and butchery of animals. To be sure, our protagonist (Van) is not a sadist. He goes for the quick, painless kill, but there is enough hunting and rending of flesh and organs to satisfy a 19th century French chef, or a modern day sushi cook. Particularly unnerving is a scene in which Cariebasa, a merciless Gorgon queen, eats a live (although a mercifully anaesthetized) catfish.
To be fair, the butchery in the novel is probably more honest than the preparation of the industrial meat that so many of us eat everyday. At least the animals (and mythical beasts) consumed in “Confessions…” spent their fictional lives (and let’s also remember it is fiction, no animals were hurt in making this book) being free in the wild (or at least roaming farmlands), as opposed to being raised in a soulless factory.
Along with the butchery is the issue of underage sex. One of the strange facets (and a smaller flaw) of “Confessions…” is that Van’s age in indeterminate and hard to pin down. It seems like he’s six years old, and a few pages later, he’s suddenly in his early teens. And while he is described as a precocious prodigy and budding genius (and growing up in a world where boys become men at a very young age) it’s still easy to get confused about how old he is at any part of the novel except the very beginning. But whatever his age, it’s clear that he’s having serious underage sex with a Gorgon queen. Again, in the novel’s defense, this is not our world, and the story makes it very clear that this is all of Van’s choosing.
Some people will find the butchery and underage sex to be a major problem, but read in context, they make sense and add a certain sense of rawness to the novel.
This is not to say that “Confessions…” is perfect. It has some notable flaws.
One is the episodic story structure. Each chapter is framed in the same general style: a blend of recipe (or at least a cooking-related anecdotes) mixed with a flashback to Van’s youth, mixed with actual forward narrative of the book (which mostly concerns itself with a political problem in Van’s home town and subsequent journey to the mysterious Palmlands). While this three-part blend works well initially, it gets repetitive towards the end. Additionally, as I got past the halfway point of the novel, I wanted to see a reduction in flashbacks and recipes, and a greater focus on the “now” of the story, which- unfortunately- did not arrive.
A bigger problem was the feeling that two major plot points were dropped before they reached fruition. Honestly this was my only real complaint about “Confessions…” One plot involves Van’s relationship with Cariebasa, the Gorgon queen, and the other (even more compelling) about a series of visions related to a mysterious beast called “The Devourer”. In both cases, it felt like there was something more to be explored, and I thought Bruno dropped ball too early in those cases.
You know what, though? I can live with those structural imbalances because what’s good about this book seriously dwarfs any problems I have.
In the end, I can’t recommend this book enough for all the reasons that I mentioned above: the confidence of the narrative, the novelty of subgenre, the savagery and energy of the plot (which is so contrapuntal to the actual voice of the narrator), and (most important) because “Confessions…” fulfills the potential of what one might do in the realm of the self published.