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Battle Royal by Lucy Parker


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Battle Royal

by Lucy Parker
August 17, 2021 · Avon
Contemporary RomanceRomance

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Content warning: There’s a lot of grief and loss in the backstories of characters in this book, including emotionally abusive families, and deaths of beloved family members by cancer and road trauma. It’s not graphic, but there were definitely scenes that made me cry.

When I saw that one of my favourite comfort-read authors was writing a story that featured rival pastry chefs baking a royal wedding cake while also being judges on a show that is essentially the Great British Bake Off… well, you guys know me by now. Suffice it to say, Lucy Parker could probably hear my squeeing from across the Tasman Sea (look, it’s not that far from Melbourne to New Zealand, and I am a trained singer…).

I was not disappointed.

He went in for elegant minimalism. She rarely saw an object that couldn’t be improved with sequins.
She was, aesthetically, his worst nightmare.

Friends, the aesthetic antagonism between our two leads is a joy and a delight in its own right, and the behind-the-scenes reality baking show stuff is just glorious. I’m addicted to over-the-top cooking shows (allow me to recommend Crazy Delicious to your attention if it has not yet crossed your screen), and when it comes to depicting the combination of fascinatingly delicious food with the eagerness of the production team to get good dramatic footage, I can only say that this story has Nailed It.

OK, so this is going to be a difficult review for me to write coherently, as I am extremely distractible when cake is involved. So I’m just going to give you a quick summary of the plot now, before I lose my focus and start watching videos about lollipops again.

Our protagonists and patisserie nemeses are Dominic de Vere and Sylvie Fairchild. They first met four years ago, when Sylvie was a contestant on Operation Cake and Dominic was one of the celebrity judges. There were sparks between them from the start, and not the good kind. Dominic, while an excellent pastry chef, makes Mr Darcy look like the model of tact and diplomacy, and Sylvie reacts by making her cakes even more full of rainbows and glitter, just for the pure joy of making him flinch at the sight of them.

And that’s before the unfortunate – but highly televised! – incident with the unicorn cake in Chapter 1.

Since then, their paths have been apparently doomed to cross. Sylvie has opened her own cake shop, an enchanted grove of chocolate fountains and sugar-glass castles and witches’ cauldrons full of delicious potions. Her shop is directly opposite De Vere’s, the cake shop which Dominic inherited from his grandfather, and the home of all things elegantly white, cream or ecru. Sylvie has been invited back to Operation Cake as a judge. And now, they are submitting rival tenders for a royal wedding cake.

On the surface, De Vere’s should be a shoo-in for the commission. De Vere’s has always made the wedding cakes for the Royal Family. But Princess Rose is no ordinary princess – with her gothic aesthetic and fondness for gaming, fanciful decorations and sugarwork dragons may be just her style…

Battle Royal is the first book in a new series by Parker, and it represents a tonal shift from her previous stories. While this story still has the signature humour and the grumpy/sunshine dynamic I have come to expect and love in her work, it also went a little deeper into themes of grief and loss than her earlier novels. It’s a lovely, funny, tender romance, but I’m not sure I’d call it a romantic comedy.

The relationship with Sylvie and Dom is pretty lovely. While it seems at first to be an opposites-attract sort of relationship – and Sylvie really lives to wind Dominic up – their differences really are largely about aesthetics, and they have more in common than one might think. It’s easy to see how this relationship will work in the long run. They have a lot of shared values; both are committed to excellence in what they do, and as owners of similar businesses, they face similar challenges with staff, and handle them with similar compassion and understanding.

They are also both people who have been shaped by loss and have had to build unconventional families. Sylvie was orphaned as an infant, and lost her beloved Aunt Mallory when she was nineteen; her family now consists of her best friend and business partner, Jon, his family, and her staff. Dom’s family was emotionally abusive, and he ran away from home at the age of 13, and went to live with his grandfather. He is estranged from one sister, and the other, Pet (short for Petunia) has only recently reappeared in his life. He is struggling to build a relationship with her.

There is a bit of a theme along the way about what love is worth and what one should be willing to sacrifice for it. We see this most explicitly in the relationship between Princess Rose and her fiancé, John Marchmont. Johnny is a sweet, gentle young man who seems in danger of being eaten alive by the royal machine and the media alike, and Rose is tortured by the fear of what their relationship will do to him. The question of whether this is a price worth paying for the sake of love is echoed in the unfolding, hidden story of Rose’s uncle, Prince Patrick, who died unwed several years prior and who had a secret romance in his past.

For Sylvie, this is an essential question. She knows what it is to be loved, and she knows how much it hurts to lose someone you love, and so for her love represents risk in a way that it just doesn’t for Dom. She is wary of loving so fully again and risking further loss. I really liked this – I think it can be quite common to be afraid to open oneself up to love (and thus the prospect of future grief) after a major loss, but I don’t think it’s a dynamic that gets talked about much.

Dom has the opposite issue to Sylvie – he was neglected as a child, and while his grandfather clearly loved him, he still has trouble recognising love when he experiences it. His difficulty navigating a new relationship with his sister is largely due to a deep-seated conviction that she couldn’t possibly want one.I liked that Dom and Sylvie had complementary issues around love and relationships, and were able to help each other.

I also liked the way the relationship itself was fairly smooth sailing. Once Dom and Sylvie realise that they are friends with pants-feelings, they move quickly from liking, respect and lust into a loving partnership. There are no great betrayals or misunderstandings along the way.

And that’s a good thing, because WOW was there a lot going on in this book. Plot arcs include, but are not limited to, the central romance, the baking competition, the rival tenders to bake the royal cake, the relationship between the royal couple, the relationship between Dom and Pet, the quest to find out What Happened With Patrick, the quest to find out What Is In Midnight Elixir, and more.

Battle Royal does manage to keep all these balls in the air – just! – but it felt like a near thing at times, and for me, the story was a little bit sprawling. I suspect part of this was worldbuilding and establishing characters for future stories, but it really did feel like a lot. Having said that, I can’t complain, because the characters being established were great. I especially loved Pet, who is a brilliant PA and knows it. She may be insecure about her relationship with Dom, but professionally, she knows how good she is and she knows what she deserves. I want to *be* Pet.

I also adored Mabel, Sylvie’s extremely competent, very fierce, assistant, who carves the faces of those who displease her into amezaiku lollipops, threatens Sylvie with horrible poetic epitaphs if she fails to take her (very sound) advice, and basically steals every scene she is in.

[She] skewered him with a comprehensive stare. “I’m Mabel,” she’d said. “Those of my choosing call me Mabs.” Another pointed sweep up and down his body before she reached her verdict. “You can call me Mabel.”

I also want to be Mabel, frankly. I don’t think perpetually cranky brilliance is really my style, but I wish it were.

(Also, I went down an amezaiku rabbit hole and it’s honestly the most incredible, beautiful edible art form I’ve ever seen. If you wish to follow me down the rabbit hole, here are two short videos to start with. And here’s a longer one because honestly I can’t stop watching these.)

Though, in fact, my amezaiku digression brings me back to something else I want to mention, which is the absolute magic of the food in this story, particularly in Sylvie’s shop.

The Castle – because anything that had taken that long to make deserved to be capitalized – had begun life as a small sugar tower, part of Sylvie’s ongoing attempts to exactly replicate the appearance of glass art – pâte de verre – in edible form. From the bricks to the turret, the tower appeared to be constructed out of highly textural, glistening ice crystals, as if a fairy-tale witch had cast a spell of perpetual winter.

Anyone else singing ‘Let it Go’ right now?

frozen-ch5-trimmed-17.gif?w=782&zoom=2

Incidentally, I think Battle Royal will appeal strongly to readers of Laura Florand’s Amour et Chocolat books, particularly The Chocolate Kiss, which contains a similarly magical patisserie. While the relationship dynamics are very different, the two books have a similar atmosphere. And they both contain imaginary chocolate shops that I desperately want to visit.

I loved Battle Royal. While it did have minor flaws, it more than made up for them with humour, tenderness, and food porn. But for me, the difference between a book I enjoy and a book I want to read and re-read and re-read again is the characters. Because let’s face it, when you read a story, you are spending hours in the company of the people who inhabit it, and if you don’t like them very much, you probably aren’t going to want to hang out with them a second time.

Battle Royal was packed full of characters whose company I enjoyed. I loved Sylvie’s kindness and sharpness and culinary whimsy, and I loved Dom’s steadiness and integrity. I loved Princess Rose’s combination of professional poise and personal vulnerability, and I loved it when her Johnny finally did what I had been waiting for him to do for most of the book. I adored Pet and Mabel, and the contestants and judges on the baking show.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series. But in the meantime, I’ll be popping back to visit Dom, Sylvie, and their friends any time I need a pick-me-up. This really was a lovely read.

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