CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 37. . . .May 25, 2012
Neil Flambé and the Crusader's Curse. (Neil Flambé Capers; 3).
Toronto, ON: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012.
290 pp., hardcover, $14.99.
Blessing and cursing-Fiction.
Mystery and detective stories.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Todd Kyle.
Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.
Neil ignored Larry and started pacing the floor, waving his arms as he spoke out loud. "Picón. DBC. It's just like them. They have the resources, the technology. They've probably bugged this place, too. Picón, I'll track you down and get you for this!"
"Um, still not following you, cousin."
"Neil, who is this Picón?" Isabella said.
Neil stopped and stared at the three confused-looking faces. He seemed shocked to find them still there. "Um, DBC. Larry said DBC. And it doesn't stand for Danish Blizzard Cooling or anything idiotic like that. DBC stands for evil."
"Um, Neil, I don't think evil has a d, b, or a c in it."
"Not literally!" Neil bellowed. "D, B, and C are the initials for... Deep Blue Cheese."
Fifteen-year-old chef prodigy Neil Flambé, appearing here in his third book, is re-opening his restaurant when he discovers an intricate diabolical plot to destroy his career, beginning with sabotage to his air conditioner and silverware to make his food taste and smell horrible. Neil is confronted with a cooking duel with an old rival, the computer Deep Blue Cheese, which he wins, only to discover the plot is part of sinister curse that has plagued Flambé chefs for centuries. He then travels to Paris to discover the real force behind the curse, the industrialist Valette family, who are determined to make Neil fail. The final climax sees Neil, his cousin Larry, his girlfriend Isabella and her bodyguard, and a chef named Jean-Claude Chili, all racing against time to prevent Jeanne Valette from blowing up the La Défense skyscaper to which she has lured Neil.
A twisting, complicated, funny, and inventive story, The Crusader's Curse takes the fantastical story of a top world chef, running his own restaurant at age 15, and delves into his family's roots as chefs since the Middle Ages, victims of a curse laid on them by an Order of Crusaders avenging Pierre Flambé's smuggling of food into an "infidel" fortress to save starving Muslims. The book features excerpts from diaries and letters from various cursed family members, all tied to a book of recipes that shows up in Neil's life and is the first clue to the family curse. The history is compelling, as is Flambé's constant references to good food as both his mission in life and his means of combating the forces trying to take him down. Neil's struggle to cook the best meal of his life in the duel against DBC is particularly convincing.
There are, however, moments when the story is far too laden with its own intricate details for its own good. Some of the cultural references and jokes, such as characters' food-referencing names, are likely to be beyond the frame of reference of the age group targeted: most will laugh at Isabella Tortellini or Jean-Claude-Chili, but would any get the Caribbean dictator Fidel Castoroil? Some characters' connection to the almost-circular plot is so tenuous as to be forgettable. Jean-Claude's sister appears at the end, recovering from Jeanne's attempt on her life, but it is difficult to recall the brief earlier mention of her in the spiraling dénouement; readers will not even recognize her name, as it is the first mention of it. And a number of details, some seemingly significant, are beyond explanation. Isabella's age is not given, but one would expect she must be a teen to be romantically involved with Neil; yet at one point, it is mentioned that "she had once gone a decade without speaking to a single chef." And what to make of the jokes about snoring in the same scene, that appear to mean that Jean-Claude is in a same-sex relationship with chef Hugo Victoire? It is a detail that has no relevance to the plot and is unlikely to be caught by a young reader.
Still, Neil Flambé and the Crusader's Curse is a highly enjoyable and adventurous book, one with a unique focus on a very 21st century obsession with food.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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