16 July 2012

Guest Post and Giveaway: House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier

Although I read quite a bit of literary fiction, I'm not a genre snob. And one genre I really like is fantasy. Rachel Neumeier's House of Shadows sounds like a good match for me. I like the idea that it's about sisters and takes place in an exotic location. Throw in a little magic, and I know I'll be hooked. Here's the publisher's summary:

When tragically orphaned, two sisters are left to find their own fortunes. Sweet and proper, Karah’s future seems secure at a glamorous Flower House. She could be pampered for the rest of her life . . . if she agrees to play their game.

Nemienne, neither sweet nor proper, has fewer choices. Left with no alternative, she accepts a mysterious mage’s offer of an apprenticeship. Agreeing means a home and survival, but can Nemienne actually trust her new teacher?

With the arrival of a foreign bard into the quiet city, dangerous secrets are unearthed, and both sisters find themselves at the center of a plot that threatens not only to upset their newly found lives, but also to destroy their kingdom.

If you've read my blog for more than a week, then you know that one of my passions is food and cooking. Whenever I'm reading, I am always interested in what the characters are eating. When I asked Rachel Neumeier to write something about the food we'd find in the world of the House of Shadows, I had no idea she was a fellow enthusiast. Not only did she write a terrific guest post, she's even shared a yummy-sounding recipe.

Help me welcome Rachel to Beth Fish Reads.

Details and the Dining Table in House of Shadows

Thanks for having me on Beth Fish Reads! It's a pleasure to be visiting a blog that gives proper priority to books and cooking—both subjects dear to my heart.

Establishing the setting of a novel is, for me, one of the great pleasures of writing. Dialogue, that's hard. But setting? That's the fun part.

For a fantasy such as House of Shadows, inspiration for the setting comes from all sorts of places. But once I have the basic idea for a setting, building depth and a "you are there" feel depends on the detail work, and what and how my characters eat is one of the most important details. Writers who don't cook in their daily lives may sometimes be content to let their characters eat "stew" and "roasts," but since I love food, I try to do better than that!

One of the main inspirations behind House of Shadows, was a nonfiction book, Geisha, by Liza Dalby, which I happened to be reading at the time I was thinking about the setting for a new novel. It's not that House of Shadows, is set in any kind of alternate Japan. No. But there are definitely echoes of the East in the story's setting.

I was particularly interested in the Japanese separation between artistic geisha and ordinary prostitutes, and many aspects of the society in House of Shadows, grew out of that detail. In Lonne, the city where the story is set, successful keiso are famous celebrities. In the opening scenes of the story, we see a girl rescuing her sisters from threatened poverty by essentially selling herself into a keiso house—arguing that at least she is not proposing to become anything so disreputable as, say, an actress. Not exactly courtesans, certainly not prostitutes, keiso are instead professionally glamorous woman companions hired by men who want not only to entertain their friends but also to show off their good taste while they do it.

The idea of keiso entertainments led directly to the use of formal banquets in the story and gave me a chance to have fun establishing an exotic and elegant atmosphere. Thus we have duck breast with cherry sauce, pureed parsnips with sea urchin roe, and glazed pastries decorated with candied flower petals. Or, elsewhere in the novel—playing with Eastern ideas of elegant presentation—clear broth served in bowls painted with sea grasses, doves cooked with leeks and cream and served on copper-colored plates, and translucent noodles sprinkled with abalone and served on plates decorated with painted dragonflies.

You can also tell from these menus that the setting is a coastal city. In fact, Lonne, the "Pearl of the West," is a famously sophisticated and glamorous city, the capital of a powerful country, and set in rugged country where three rivers come down from the mountains and pour into the sea. That's actually important for magical reasons but obviously has a big influence on food, too.

Of course, even in Lonne, it's not all banquets and glitter. There's "comfort food" as well, but it's not American comfort food. Instead, the people of Lonne are likely to sit down to a breakfast of rice porridge with shrimp, or on hot evenings send out for chilled noodles.

If you'd like to sample the cooking of Lonne, it's not hard: here's a very simple Asian-style recipe that probably comes close. It's also, coincidentally, a perfect easy, quick recipe for those evenings when you're writing a great scene and don't want to take the time to cook!

Cold Sesame or Peanut Noodles with Poached Shrimp
  • 3 ounces glass noodles (bean threads, cellophane noodles) or thin spaghetti
  • 1 can chicken broth, plus a little water if necessary
  • ¼ cup tahini (or peanut butter, an option I actually prefer, though I doubt they have peanuts in Lonne)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame chili oil (or Tabasco) (optional)
  • 1½ tablespoons soy sauce
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 1–2 tablespoons hot water
  • ¼ cup minced scallions
  • ½ of a cucumber, seeded and sliced thin
  • 12 or so medium poached shrimp (or 2 ounces diced poached chicken breast)
Cover the glass noodles with broth (plus, if necessary, a little water). Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Or else cook the spaghetti as you ordinarily would.

In the meantime, whisk together the tahini, chili oil, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and enough hot water so that the sauce has a consistency similar to heavy cream.

Drain the glass noodles and cool slightly, or run cold water over them and drain again if you want them cold rather than room temperature. Or drain and rinse the spaghetti.

Whatever kind of noodles you're using, toss with about 4 tablespoons of the sauce, adding more to taste. Toss in the cucumber and scallions. Top with shrimp and serve. Serves two.
Thanks so much, Rachel. I love the examples you gave of how the food and its presentation say so much about the people present and the circumstances in which the meal is served. And I can't wait to try the noodle dish. I love cold noodles and this one with shrimp sounds delicious.

The Giveaway:
Thanks to the publishers, I am able to offer one of my readers a copy of House of Shadows. Because I will mailing the book myself, this giveaway is open to only those with a US/Canada mailing address. To enter for a chance to win, just fill out the form. I'll pick a winner on July 30. Good luck!


Beth Hoffman 7/16/12, 8:32 AM  

The recipe sounds divine, and I can easily adapt it to be gluten-free!

Meg @ A Bookish Affair 7/16/12, 9:20 AM  

Wow, the recipe sounds fabulous, especially for summer!

Cecelia 7/16/12, 9:23 AM  

Cold noodle recipes seem to be everyone's favorite summertime meal. Noted!

Daryl 7/16/12, 10:51 AM  

love the sound of that recipe, even if I dont cook .. and the book is right up my alley ..

Zibilee 7/16/12, 1:51 PM  

Oh my goodness, this book sounds so wonderful, and the added benefit that it's a foodie book really gets my attention. I love books that focus so heavily on food, and would probably really enjoy reading this one. Excellent and very mouth-watering post today. It's always such a pleasure to read about books that are so alive with sensuous aspects.

bermudaonion 7/16/12, 2:09 PM  

It sounds like the author was serious about getting the setting right!

Libby 7/16/12, 5:47 PM  

I actually have leftover tahini in the fridge from a Middle Eastern recipe, so this is perfect!

The book sounds like a winner too. I've been wanting to learn more about Japan since I read "Shogun" about 6 months ago...

Kailana 7/16/12, 9:06 PM  

The recipe sounds good! I keep meaning to experiment more and join for Weekend Cooking..

Laura Kay 7/17/12, 7:56 AM  

Sounds like a great book and a fantastic recipe for hot summer days!

Robin M 7/17/12, 12:50 PM  

Welcome Rachel and thank you for writing such an interesting story. I reading the book now and totally enjoying it. I finding the characters and the world of Lonne fascinating.

Rachel Neumeier 7/18/12, 12:58 PM  

So pleased the recipe sounds appealing to you all -- I actually made variants four days in a row before I put the final version in this post, so I hope you enjoy it if you try it.

Robin, delighted to find you've picked up a copy of H of S. Now that it's out, I've been re-reading little bits myself, and I'm glad to say I still think it's pretty good!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours 7/22/12, 12:35 PM  

Thanks for featuring Rachel for the tour!

Randi M 8/10/12, 5:49 PM  

Just bookmarked this recipe! I'm excited to read this book, and even more so now hearing about more about the culture of the land. Definitely intrigued. :) Great review!

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