The Stars Dispose (1997)
I picked up The Stars Dispose used, several years ago. But for one reason or another, never got around to reading it. However, when I was looking for something different to read, I finally picked it up.
In the 1500s, there was a power struggle in Florence. The de Medicis struggle to remain in power, however, the actions of the de Medici pope and some of the de Medici nobles have turned much of the populace against the family. A handful of people, including the de Befanini family of cooks and the seer Ruggiero struggle to save the young duchess de Medici
The Stars Dispose is a somewhat unusual fantasy. In tone it reminded me of Ellen Kushner's fantasies. The fantasy elements, however, reminded me of Charles de Lint, with the supernatural world just below the surface of the world of which most of us are aware. And the food...
The main focus of the story is upon Tommaso de Befanini, the young son of the head cook of the Ruggiero household who is learning the family trade, but because of his family's involvement with the de Medicis, ends up learning much more.
The story is chock full of historical characters--the cast of characters listed in the back is a who's who of 16th century Florence, including Michaelangelo and several other Renaissance artists.
However, despite all the famous people filling the pages of this book, I found the story fascinating. As Tommaso learns about politics and art and cooking, so do we learn about these things and the world at that time.
However, this is not a book you want to read on an empty stomach. As I said, Tommaso comes from a line of cooks, and is continuing in the family tradition. Everyone is constantly eating and cooking--from small snacks to multi course meals.
Elsewhere in the kitchen all was the usual clamor and bustle as the cooking apprentices and scullery maids kneaded and pounded bread, rolled out dough for pasta, ground spices and pestles, and whisked sauces at the other workstations. A scullion checked a haunch roasting in the spit in the great fireplace. The ovens banked along the far wall opposite the shelves and smaller worktables were primed--the roasting oven heated to cook three fat capons and a frittata, the fornaio baking pastries for dessert (though most breadstuffs were cooked early in the morning), and in the salamander, a platter of oysters enjoyed a brief bath of flame. Sacks lay piled high near the pantry door at the opposite end of the kitchen. The kitchen cat rustled among them searching for rats. Some of the younger Ruggiero sons who'd come looking to pilfer scraps of food were teasing Tommaso's littlest sister, Beatrice, as she sat struggling to shell peas with her fat five-year-old's fingers.
But it's not all cooking and food. There's also art and politics and scheming and religion and magic.
The one difficulty I had was keeping track of who was who, especially with the artists. As the cast of characters was in the back of the book, I didn't find it until I was finished with the book, so I kept getting confused as to who was apprentice to which artist, and which character was which. Next book I'll keep checking the cast of characters to help keep everyone straight. This may also have been because although the main characters had distinct personalities, many of the secondary characters all ran together in my mind.
I enjoyed The Stars Dispose immensely. It reminded me not just of Ellen Kushner, but also of Sean Russell and Guy Gavriel Kay; There's more to the story than magic. There is history. There are strong characters and wonderful storytelling. And most of all there is a fantastic world. If you are looking for a different kind of fantasy, then I highly recommend The Stars Dispose.
The Stars Compel (1999)
First things first… WAH! This was supposed to be book two of a trilogy–however, the third book was never published, and since The Stars Compel was published in 1999, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get the third book any time soon. Hence… WAH!
On the bright side, the story arc of this book was completed, so I wasn't left completely hanging. But, I still want to know what happens to the characters, and it seems like I'll never find out. (I searched her website looking for any information on a sequel but came up blank.)
However, as the sequel to The Stars Dispose, I found The Stars Compel well worth reading. Tommaso and Caterina were sent to Rome, so that Caterina can remain under the watch of her uncle, Pope Clement, who wants to marry her of to increase his power. However, Caterina and Ippolita have other plans, and Tommaso is drawn in both consciously and unconsciously.
Tommaso has gone to Rome as Caterina's personal chef, but continues his education in the kitchens of the Salviati home, where the master carver Marcus Gavius Spada and master baker Bindo Ramerino and their families were in charge of the kitchen, and also with the famous cook Bartolommeo Scappi, and also with the goldsmith Benevenuto Cellini.
Tommaso also discovers Roman branch of his family, learns more about his family's past--and his own, and begins to come to terms with his family's magical heritage.
As with the first book, the writing is excellent, and the characters are vivid and fascinating. And as with the first book, some of the tone reminded me a bit of Ellen Kushner's books. There is detail--of lavish feasts, of daily meals, and of preparation of meals of all sorts--and there are a handful of recipes in the back, some of which look interesting, although I'll skip the pork recipe.
Although there is no conclusion to the series, I still have to recommend this book for it's wonderful writing and story telling, and because it gave me more time to spend with Caterina and Tommaso.