Neil Flambé has had enough with solving crime. After his adventures in Japan, he is back in his beloved restaurant doing what he does best;cooking. And he has a very special guest. Lord Lane from England has requested he serve a meal centered around an ancient jar of honey discovered in London. But when Lane disappears afterwards, Neil receives a request from the Queen herself to come across the pond and find out what happened to him.
As soon as Neil arrives, he is swept up in a mystery involving the great works of Shakespeare and food. Neil may know quite a bit about the latter, but being chased by thugs through the streets of London and following centuries-old clues is not exactly his forte. Will Neil be able to put the pieces together in time or will he let everyone down, including the Queen?
He’s back! After a year-long hiatus, we are treated to book five in the very popular and award-winning series. I’ve loved all four of his previous books; each book has had a different flavour to it (pun intended) and has taken Neil to Tokyo, Italy, and Mexico City. In this latest turn, Neil follows his nose to London, where he is investigating the mysterious disappearance of a Lord, and tracking down a mystery from Shakespeare’s time.
Here’s the thing I love about Neil: he’s kind of a jerk. Now that he’s a little older and he’s had more adventures, Neil is really filling the shoes of the glowering teen, the one who acts like he knows better than the people around him, and who throws attitude like nobody’s business. I love Neil because he is an exceptionally talented chef, and an abysmal student. As much as he has his strengths, he’s carrying some pretty normal weaknesses, and that has made him much more human to me as a reader. In this particular outing, Larry once again is the yin to Neil’s yang, and both characters are integral to solving the mystery of the Shakespearian riddle. In fact, Neil has to rely on a lot of different people to help solve this case. Isabella is back with the indomitable Jones, and Rose Patil (ahem…) is introduced to the group, along with her mysterious connection to Jones. Angel and Nakamura pitch in, and it’s great to see Neil not only realizing that he needs the help, but actually accepting and thanking people for it. Our Neil is getting older, and with that come changes.
Part of the fun of the Flambé series lies in the wordplay, and Sylvester doesn’t let us down with this latest instalment. Punny names about (see above) and there’s even a “pun-off” between Isabella and Larry as they attempt to re-name famous Shakespearian plays with food references (I think “Twelfth Bite” and “Macbroth” might be two of my favourites). The rivalry between Kemp and Shakespeare is explored in just enough detail to give the back story without drowning younger readers in exposition. Still, parents and teachers may want to take a moment to explain a bit about life in the Elizabethan era, as Larry and Rose do a great job doing that for Neil, but there may still be questions.
The food mentions are also excellent, and there is a lovely mix of food education with historical insight that doesn’t bog down the plot or the action. I can highly recommend the scone recipe listed at the front of the book (at least in my version), although I will side with Larry on the clotted cream-jam order of application. Don’t go into this latest book hungry; over the course of reading this book, I found myself munching on cheese and crackers, roasting a chicken and making scones with fresh honey, all because the food descriptions are so very tasty.
This is a highly action-packed adventure, with twists and turns and red herrings all over the place. Readers will need to take note of the clues carefully, and to keep track of the characters as they change places and roles faster than a British panto piece. Isabella’s ever-present sidekick Jones has a few chances to shine in this volume, and I kept picturing this guy on the right every time, which is not a hardship… Sylvester’s fun illustrations break up the text as usual, and will be helpful references for readers who are unfamiliar with London or British history (the Stone of Scone is one particular example).
Overall, the break has been good for Neil. He’s a little wiser in the ways of life but still hasn’t lost that edge or that nose that makes him such a great chef. He’s learning to compromise, and to accept that he will need help sometimes, but he’s also very much the Neil we met in the first caper, with a love of good food and disdain for people who don’t understand his genius. I also love that the secondary characters have come into their own, and that they have their own storylines and histories (Isabella in particular remains an enigma…). One final note: things end on kind of a cliffhanger in this book. I won’t say how or why, except that I’m very glad that Book 6 will (hopefully) be out this year to reduce our anxiety!
Disclaimer: I know Kevin, and have hosted several book events with him. Additionally, I have been a guest on his Great Kids, Great Reads podcast (a fantastic podcast, and I highly suggest subscribing to it).
Neil Flambé and the Bard’s Banquet is published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, and is available NOW from your friendly indie book store as well as your favourite print or digital retailer. A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ISBN: 9781481410380, 320 pages. For more information about the Neil Flambé series, and some pretty great downloads, visit Kevin’s website.