Rupert Wong is an investigator by day and cannibal chef by night. A whipping boy for the gods, he will tantalize your tastebuds and set your mouth watering … as long as there’s human meat around. Things go sideways when Ao Qin, Dragon of the South, god of the seas, bursts into Rupert’s apartment and ropes him into investigating a grisly murder. Success means Rupert gets to live another day; failure means nothing more or less than a one-way ticket to Diyu, the Chinese hell. Grab your jockstrap, and strap on your kevlar, because Food of the Gods doesn’t fight fair.
Cassandra Khaw burst onto the scene last year with her gut-punching debut novella, Hammer of Bones—a modern Lovecraftian noir that’s not for the squeamish, but hits all the right notes. To say I was excited for her full length debut is an easy understatement. It’s not often that an emerging writer so effortlessly combines classic inspirations with such modern style and panache. Food of the Gods plays with a lot of familiar archetypes—Rupert is a down-on-your-luck investigator solving a murder. What’s so special about Khaw’s writing, though, is that even when she’s working with these tried-and-true archetypes, her prose is so delicious and her voice so hip that everything old feels new again. Khaw’s writing and world-building oozes style. It’s modern and approachable, inspired but not dogged down by its obvious forbears like Chandler and Lovecraft.
Every page is quotable. Her settings are full of life, characters unto themselves:
The Chinese Hell isn’t such a bad place if you’re just visiting.
Unpleasantly warm, sure. Cacophonous, definitely. But the denizens are cultured, fastidious about personal hygiene, and too practical for blanket judgements. If you can get over the idea that the entire dimension pivots on an industry of deserved torture, Diyu, while hardly a top vacation spot, is rather like a more sanitary Kuala Lumpur.” (Ch. 16)
She uses humour like a scalpel to dissect some of the more sensitive social issues that plague the work of her inspirations:
“Me.” He passes me the joint. “That’s who I am. I am the Crawling Chaos, the God of a Thousand Forms, the Stalker among the Stars, the Faceless God. I am the son of Azathoth, the Blind Idiot God. I am the voice of the Outer Gods, the destruction of humanity, and a happy fabrication of H.P. Lovecraft.”
“You’re a figment of someone else’s imagination?”
“More like an analogy for an irrational fear of the foreign.” (Ch. 29)
And, well, sometimes Khaw just likes to get down and dirty:
I’ve regretted many things over the last thirty-seven years. Flirtations with recreational chemicals, second-degree murder, an ex-girlfriend with an alarming propensity for strap-ons. But I don’t think I’ve quite regretted anything as much as trusting Bob to whisk us away to safety. (Ch. 6)
Khaw is always tip-toeing the line between “Oh, god, this is too much,” and “My stomach’s churning, but in sort of a good way.” The underworld that Rupert travels through is degenerate and horrifying, but it’s also creative and endlessly diverse. Despite the subject matter that pervades most of the book (which, if I’m being frank, is not to my personal taste, making its success all the more satisfying), it’s fun to spend time with Rupert as he crashes through Diyu, gets caught in the crossfire at a soup kitchen, or catches his guts as they spill out of his belly. It’s not going to be for everyone, but even if it sounds revolting (and sometimes it is; Rupert is a cannibal chef, after all), you might be surprised to find you enjoy it anyway.
Food of the Gods moves at a torrential pace, and Khaw let up in hopes of you catching your breath. It’s exhilarating, but once in a while things become a little difficult to keep track of, especially as Rupert jumps ship from one pantheon to another to another (we’ve got Chinese gods, Malaysian gods, Greek gods, social media gods, and even a few of Lovecraftian gods, to name a few). While billed as a novel, Food of the Gods is actually two related novellas smooshed together—this works well enough, but the transition between the first and second novella is abrupt and skips over some complicated advancements in Rupert’s relationship with his undead girlfriend, Minah. This could have been improved by adding some interstitial content to tie everything together. It feels like a four-chapter chunk of the novel is missing. But, by the time you notice, you’ll be so far gone down the rabbit hole that you probably won’t care.
In fact, the first novella, “Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef,” is itself a terrific stand alone experience that offers a messy but complex and unexpected conclusion. One of Khaw’s strengths is the way she keeps the reader on their toes—not unfairly playing with their expectations, but filling her stories with genuine surprises and twists.
Rupert Wong, who Khaw has described as “Rincewind smooshed together with Constantine,” is the star of the show, and he really shines in Food of the Gods. He’s complex without being obtuse, frenetic and proactive, but only because he really just wants to slow down and take a breath, driven, but also malleable. He’s a right asshole, but he’s also got a good heart buried in there somewhere, and truly does believe he’s the hero in his own story. But, what really makes the novel work is the interactions between Rupert and the many characters he crosses paths with. Whether they’re gods or more simple underworld denizens, like the ghost child Jian Wang, they are all interesting and feel like they have a place in the greater world.
With Starz’ television adaptation of American Gods earning rave reviews, there’s no better time for Food of the Gods, which reads like a modernized sequel to Gaiman’s 2001 novel. The gods are at war—with themselves, and the inexorable wave of modern pop culture.
“I’m more of a short film than a YouTube video. A man named Robert Morgan spun me out of his sister’s nightmare and then the Internet gave me some meat to my bones. And ever since then, I’ve been a real boy, sustained by page views and retweets, gorged on every ten-minute twitch of human horror.”
His grin is ghastly. “Don’t look so surprised, now. I’m just like yer gods. Only hipper.”
The thought of Yan Luo of Guan Yun participating in modern trends, trading phrases from MTV videos or donning hipster-glasses, elicits a strangled laugh. The Cat grins wider. “You heard it here first: churches are dead; YouTube and Snapchat and Facebook are the new houses of worship.” (Ch. 23)
Food of the Gods opens in Kuala Lumpur, which Khaw describes as “a conundrum of skyscrapers, post-colonial architecture, and verdant green jungle.” It’s rich and vibrant, stuffed to the brim with interesting characters and places, overflowing with history and magic. Around every corner there’s something new or interesting to see. It’s refreshing to read an urban fantasy that isn’t written in a same ol’, same ol’ setting.
“Coming from Malaysia, people of color are the status quo,” Khaw wrote on Terrible Minds. “We’re Indian, Chinese, Malay, Kadazan, Dusun, Iban—the list goes on. White people, on the other hand, different. And that kind of bled through. I wrote what I knew: a metropolis where ghosts were almost real, a place where cultures intermingled, where pirated DVDs still abound. I borrowed from our myths and our urban legends. I borrowed from my ethnic culture. (I’m ethnically Chinese, but am a Malaysian citizen.) I borrowed from our ideas of the Western World, who they represented, and what they were.”
The way that Khaw blends so many various cultures, from Malaysian to Chinese, Western to, umm… divine is impressive and creates a sense of place that feels alive. Midway through the book, however, there’s a disappointing shift from Kuala Lumpur to London, the setting of choice for so many urban fantasy writers. It’s not that Khaw’s take on London is less rich or evocative than Kuala Lumpur, but it’s as same ol’, same ol’ as you can get, and the book loses a bit of what made it special after Rupert leaves his home country.
With Food of the Gods, Cassandra Khaw has served up a delectable dish. It overcomes its structural flaws by leaning heavily on its style, gorgeous prose, and wildly charismatic characters. It’s not often you see such a convincing blend of culture, style, and sheer readability (even in the face of unending violence and a stomach-churning season of Top Chef: Underworld), but Khaw does it all. Food of the Gods is so decadent and flavourful that you’ll want a second helping and dessert. (Just make sure Rupert Wong’s not working in the kitchen.)
Food of the Gods is available now from Abaddon Books.
Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink.