Title: The Ninth Ingredient
Author: Leon Mauvais
Publisher: JMS Books LLC
Release Date: July 13, 2019
Genre(s): Historical romance
Page Count: 98
Reviewed by: ParisDude
Heat Level: 2 flames out of 5
Rating: 2.10 stars out of 5
The Renaissance has invaded France! When a Medici princess lands with her army of Italian bakers, the royal kitchens of Fontainebleau erupt into chaos.
The Italians serve up something new, gelato, a dessert so fashionable, so chilled, it captures the tongues of the French court. The French bakers are left scrambling. Henri, a young apprentice, is tasked with discovering the secret recipe.
But when he falls for its maker, things heat up beyond the hearth. Is he willing to betray his new love for a list of ingredients? Espionage has never tasted sweeter!
I’ve been living in Paris for several decades now and have never visited Fontainebleau, an amazing palace with a huge park and a vast forest, situated some 70 km south-west of Paris. Finally last June I managed to go there with a couple of friends, and the place was seriously mind-blowing. It’s huge, it’s regal, it’s richly decorated, it’s fabulous, you can still feel the pulse of History vibrate all around you. With that introduction, you won’t be surprised that when I saw the blurb of this novel, I was immediately drawn to it.
It’s the story of Henri, young apprentice of patisserie in the royal kitchen, who owes his place to his noble uncle (at least I assume he’s noble; some things remain hazy). A new princess has just arrived at court—her being Italian I reckon it’s Catherine de’ Medici, the wife-to-be of the future French king Henry II, and the plot therefore takes place in the middle of the 16th century (it could also be Marie de’ Medici, wife of King Henry IV; which would place the book towards the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, but everything hints at Catherine). Anyway, this lady has brought a bunch of Italian pastry chefs with her, who amaze king and court with their unheard-of delights. That triggers off a sort of internal pastry chef war between the Frenchies and the foreigners. In the centre of the French cooks’ envy is an announced dessert the Italians call gelato (they still do—it’s ice cream). Young Henri with his loose tongue having fallen out with the French pastry chef, he’s summoned to find out how to create that gelato, on pain of being dismissed if unsuccessful. But his dream has always been to become famous at court for his baking prowesses. His search for the answer is only made more difficult when he realizes he starts to fall for the handsome, huger-then-human Italian pastry chef…
This was a strange read, I must say. First of all, it’s too short to be called a novel. A novella, maybe? Anyway, it’s not badly or shoddily written. Leon Mauvais has a certain gifted quill. Yet, alas, he’s been over-enthusiastic and got carried away in his poetical writing style, so much so that in huge parts, he’s sacrificed clarity on the altar of flowery language. I often had the impression of wading through a hazy, shady moor where the overflow of words was hiding meaning as well as… plot. Yes, I admit: sometimes, I realized after a whole paragraph that I only had a cloudy idea of what was going on, as if I were looking at all the actions and interactions while standing behind some semi-transparent, shifting lace curtains. I didn’t get the ending at all—it could be that I’m a tad thick; it could be that that bit wasn’t very clear, either.
Most of the historical setting seemed pretty well researched, bar some anachronisms (if we’re talking about the times of Catherine de’ Medici, tobacco wouldn’t have been widely used at court—it was only introduced to the queen in 1560 as a cure for her son—so I don’t know what else the French pastry chef could have smoked in his pipe). On the other hand, the author doesn’t seem to have a clue of distances and means of transportation. He tries to make us believe that you could go from Paris to Lyon and back (roughly 400 km either way) by carriage in less than a week. That’s a big “No” from me—unless we’ve entered the realm of science fiction here. Otherwise that’s an impossible deed, what with shoddy roads (or no roads to speak of) and shoddy carriages. You wouldn’t be able to ride from Paris to Fontainebleau in one day either. I could have overlooked these details when they hadn’t played so important a part in the plot.
All in all, I was rather disappointed by this story. The pacing was weird, which comes with the odd length, I think. We learn either too much (the author could have edited the superfluous parts in the beginning and cut out one or two scenes to make a denser short story with this material; sometimes, less is more) or too little. For a novel, even for a novella, it’s definitely too little. Henri’s story, the romance bit, the tension arising from his challenge to find the recipe and his feelings for his supposed Italian enemy… It all remains sketchy. When you manage to cut through the fog of words, that is. I was hoping I’d get the sense of Renaissance Fontainebleau, but the palace is merely a background like any other; the story could have been situated anywhere else, and you wouldn’t have noticed the difference. I was quite overwhelmed by all those words, but underwhelmed by the whole.
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