What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank — A Book Review

Your characters need to eat. In novels with a modern, urban setting this isn’t usually a problem. Hungry? Drive-thru, supermarket, or delivery; there are a plethora of choices. Historical and — more particularly — fantasy novels is where things get problematic. Most authors today just don’t have the first hand experience necessary to write accurate depictions of food gathering, preparation, consumption and storage. Krista D. Ball to the rescue! In What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, Kristen has produced a handy, easy-to-read guide to food related matters for authors.

Book Structure

Krista divides her book into twelve chapters and two appendices. Her style is humourous, as evidenced by her chapter titles. For example:

  • Chapter 2: Where’s the Nearest Drive-thru? Markets, Fast Food, and Community Festivals
  • Chapter 6: Where’s the Refrigerator? Food Storage and Preservation, Pre-refrigeration days

Each chapter is devoted to separate topics dedicated to providing you, the author, with the necessary information to prevent writing hilariously inaccurate meal scenes in your fantasy novel.

Different authors will find different chapters of interest. Here are a few that resonated with me while reading the book:

Chapter 1: On the Road Again, Keeping Your Party Well Fed

As the title implies, this chapter is devoted to your intrepid band of adventurers (or mercenaries, or thieves, or whatever) eating while on the move. The chapter begins with a brief review of calorie burn rates for hiking, then moves into the details of cooking that staple of fantasy novels everywhere — rabbit stew.

Kristen lays out in detail the required, time, effort, and materials necessary to creating that particular meal. It was a real eye-opener to me. She moves next to venison stew, then to fishing, foraging, and what to do with the leftovers when its time for your characters to break camp.

Chapter 4: The Marching Stomach, The Logistics of Feeding an Army

This chapter is near and dear to my heart as so many novels I’ve read assume that armies will have whatever they need in the way of food and water, whenever they need it. Krista quickly disabuses the reader of that notion as she details not just the food requirements of an army, but also the effects of dehydration, military culture, the logistics of mobilization, sourcing supplies, (buy? pillage? raid?), and meal composition.

There’s a section on naval considerations as well. If you are writing epic fantasy featuring significant army movement and combat, this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Chapter 6: Where’s the Refrigerator? Food Storage and Preservation, Pre-refrigeration days

This is a fascinating chapter on what could be quite a dull subject — food preservation. Nonetheless, the book serves up (get it?) some interesting information here. The chapter covers the various food preservation techniques employed by peoples in different climates — the dry heat of the Nile River region versus Northern Europe, for example.

The details are important, although Krista cautions about throwing in too much detail in your story. There’s information here on drying, salting, pickling, and smoking various meats and foods. There’s quite a bit on pigs and bacon! All interesting stuff.

But there’s even more — information on fruits, preserves, and the prevention of scurvy is provided, along with a discussion of cleanliness and the prevention of bateria and germs getting into foodstuffs. Your heroine may not have such micro-biological knowledge, but she will likely know that cleanliness around food preparation helps stave off illness.

Chapter 10: Foods that Heal

You characters and going to get hurt, and there’s no ambulance, emergency ward, or hospital anywhere in your fantasy world. This chapter is all about early medicine. Despite the chapter name it delves into early medical practice, the role of midwifes and nurses, shamans, and apothecaries.

The chapter provides a practical description of a heroine receiving treatment for a let wound already leaking pus. The chapter winds up with a description of early medical supplies that would “stock the medicine cabinet” including poultices, salves and strong spirits. It’s good stuff to know if (when) your heroine gets a little too close to sharp steel and has to be patched up.

Appendices

The foregoing are the chapters I found most interesting but the entire book is well worth reading if you are a fantasy (or historical fiction) writer. As a bonus the author provides an agricultural calendar for Britain, which details the activities that would take place each month: sowing/planting, harvesting, shearing, feeding the livestock — it’s all there.

Finally, there’s a second appendix devoted to planning a feast — because heroes like to have a good time occasionally, and it pays to know how to do it up right.

I strongly recommend Krista’s book. It deserves to be within easy reach when writing your fantasy novel.

Have you read What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank? If so, what did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

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