I’m selecting books featuring foodie magic this month. The first, Flesh and Fire, was recommended to me on Twitter and focuses on the winemaking process.
The boy focused on what he was doing, but not so much that he failed to sense someone pause behind him, too close for comfort. He managed not to flinch as the older slave bent down to whisper. “Nice job you pulled, Fox-fur. Who’d you sweetmouth for it?”
The boy grunted, not wanting to talk, even to defend himself. Talk got you noticed. Notice was bad. Keep your face down, your hands busy, and your mouth shut, and survive. Those were the unspoken rules that everyone knew.
Growing up as a slave, Jerzy knows the intricate details of the grape harvest, but he’s forbidden from ever tasting the fruit of his labours. In the world of Flesh and Fire, wine is the stuff that spells are made of, making it valuable beyond measure. For a slave, even an accidental taste can mean death, leaving Jerzy torn between temptation and utter terror.
The setup here is unapologetically brutal. All vineyards are worked by slaves, who are poorly fed and badly treated. The Vinearts defend this process because, apparently, all Vinearts have themselves come from the slave community; they seem to hold an unchallenged belief that anything which creates and hones their abilities is worthwhile. It’s not fair to blame them, as erstwhile victims themselves, for perpetuating this cycle, but since this system has supposedly come from the gods and their offspring, we don’t start with a positive impression of religion.
For Jerzy, who has only fragmentary memories from before his enslavement, the whole world is turned on end when Malech, the Master Vineart, promotes him from field slave to apprentice. Much of the book focuses on Jerzy’s struggle to adjust as his position changes: his constant fear, his dedication to learning, and his sheer, dizzying joy in the intuitive application of magic. His evolving relationship with Malech is central (he knows no-one else, to begin with), and as problems start to emerge in the wider world, the pace of his apprenticeship accelerates and he finds increased responsibilities thrust upon him.
There’s glorious attention to detail throughout the turning of the year, from the first buds on the vines to the harvest of the last bunch of grapes, and then the magic-infused process of turning juice and mustus into vin magica and — eventually — the crafting of specialised spellwines that can be sold and used. I found the magical system utterly fascinating. Spellwines can be used by anyone, with a simple decantation (a command to release the power of the wine), but in the hands and mouths of the Vinearts, there are possibilities beyond the obvious. Jerzy has a natural affinity, able to improvise when he has to, which proves an invaluable skill in the face of an unknown enemy.
Flesh and Fire is the first of three books in the Vineart War series.