Sarah Zettel, a prolific writer of science fiction under various pseudonyms, is obviously comfortable creating an entire alternate world for her story and characters. A Taste of the Nightlife is subtitled “A Vampire Chef Mystery”, and no, the chef is not a vampire, but she’s surrounded by them. The chef in question, Charlotte Caine, owns a restaurant called “A Taste of the Nightlife”, that caters to all kinds of folk, vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. Vampires are the main focus, though there’s also a werewolf involved, and a werewolf works as Charlotte’s sous chef – she tells him on the way home “hello to the cubs”.
Charlotte’s brother, Chet, is also a vampire, a fact that’s estranged him from the rest of the family, though he’s Charlotte’s business partner. Nightlife serves blood of all sorts, mainly ox, along with a more human slanted menu. In the opening scene the restaurant is in an uproar because they’ve been visited by a prominent critic (and vampire) Anatole Sevarin, and there’s a loud complainer in the front causing a commotion and demanding to speak to the chef, as well as a replacement of her soup. From there things go all to heck.
The strongest part of the book is the fact that Zettel has created a thoroughly believable alternate world – full of phrases like “bite-easy” (think about it), “nightbloods”, “daybloods”, worrying about using garlic in her food when a “vamp” visits her at home, or the idea that using the word “Dracula” is an insult to a vampire. It’s so complete it’s impressive. She’s also grounded her story in our actual reality by having Charlotte being a normal, harried, hard working woman who frequently cooks with food we all recognize – while the warm drink of blood she offers one of the characters is a bit stomach churning – the omlettes and smoothies she describes sound comfortably human.
Charlotte and her brother Chet have a slightly fraught relationship for reasons that are (mostly) all too human. Zettel is also very good with relationships – Charlotte’s and Chet’s, Charlotte’s and Anatole’s, and Charlotte’s with another character named Brendan. There’s also a nice, funny mani-pedi scene with one of Charlotte’s roommates. That said, the mystery part is probably the weakest link, as it meanders a tiny bit and there’s some developments that are complicated by the involvement of too many characters.
However, this is a light, frequently funny, and intelligently written book. The next book in the series, Let Them Eat Stake, is scheduled for 2012 and I’m already looking forward to it. Charlotte Caine is well worth another visit.