|If you’re dying for a travelogue from the Underworld, this book will have you in heaven. If you’re hoping for a plot, you’ll find yourself trapped in Limbo.
Carolina Francesca Santoro owns a popular bakery, Pani del Goddess. (The name, which means ‘breads of the goddess,’ is – rather like Lina herself – an awkward hybrid of English and Italian.) Unfortunately, thanks to her incompetent accountant, Lina owes a fortune in taxes and must quickly come up with a way to generate the money.
Expanding into catering might be the way to go, and Lina finds an inspiringly titled cookbook: Recipes and Spells for the Goddess in Every Woman. In it is a recipe for pizza that looks promising although, oddly, part of the recipe seems to be “otherworldly instructions” involving a green candle, various incantations and an outdoor offering to the goddess Demeter.
Naturally, because she is a “consummate chef,” Lina follows the recipe precisely, including the woo-woo stuff, only to be transported into the presence of Demeter herself. Demeter has a bit of a problem. She’s being asked to cheer up the inhabitants of the Underworld by sending them a goddess to bring the feminine touch.
I should perhaps clarify that we’re not talking about the Christian Hell here, but rather the Underworld of Greek mythology, in which good spirits cavort in the Elysian Fields and the nasty spirits are sent next door to labor in the grim abyss of Tartarus. Naturally, it’s the good souls who deserve comfort.
Demeter plans to send her daughter, Persephone, the Goddess of Spring, but is concerned that Persephone is a bit immature. Her solution? Persephone will take over Lina’s body for six months and go save the bakery in order to gain valuable life experience. Lina will use Persephone’s gorgeous goddess body and her own organizational skills to bring sweetness and light to the Underworld.
Lina is a little dubious, especially since she seems to remember something from mythology about Hades raping Persephone. Demeter tells her it’s all exaggeration and, anyway, Hades is a grim old stick who’s too grumpy to be interested in sex. Demeter swears that in just six months the IRA debt will be repaid “threefold.” Lina agrees, and before you can say ‘go to hell’ she’s heading for the River Styx.
I must tell you immediately that Ms. Cast has created an Underworld of amazing detail. She describes every aspect in gorgeous Technicolor detail. The author has considered the landscape, the inhabitants, the flora, the fauna and even the scents; she has started with the mythology and created her own world.
Unfortunately, nothing happens there. Oh, sure, Lina cavorts with the Limoniades, frolics with the spirits of maidens, and conjures flowers with the fireflies, but it’s just a series of events, there’s no story, no build to anything. How could there be? Lina scarcely spares a thought to the fate of her bakery, and her only task in the Underworld is to bring joy to the spirits of the dead, something she achieves by just showing up. Woo-hoo, mission accomplished!
She captivates Hades, who’s not so dour after all but simply neglected and misunderstood by the other gods. He also turns out to be a charismatic hunk, which we know because Lina repeatedly compares him to Batman, as played by Val Kilmer. (Note to authors: constantly comparing characters to movie stars is not characterization. It is annoying, though.)
There are a couple of moments toward the end when it feels as though someone might actually have a problem or be challenged by something, but these are false alarms, resolved very quickly. But it means that, in spite of all the fabulous landscape, the book is ultimately unsatisfying because it’s mostly an extended tour guide with point of view. (Speaking of which did I mentioned that there’s some dizzying head hopping between Lina and Hades?) The author never gave me a reason to become emotionally engaged with the characters.
World building is nice, but the world is just a setting for a story about people. In really, really good writing, it can almost become a character in itself. But a world where nothing happens is just scenery.
-- Judi McKee