The Secrets of Umami (The Galactic Culinary Society) by D. R. Schoel [Review]

The Secrets of Umami (The Galactic Culinary Society) by [D.R. Schoel]

This novella introduces the Galactic Culinary Society, a multi-species organization dedicated to exploring the galaxy looking for unique food experiences. Here, the search is for the legendary edible sonnets of Umami – poetry you can taste – which hasn’t been experienced in two hundred years. Our hero, Jeane Oberon, is a human who must match wits with a tentacled alien with an unpronounceable name (“X”) in order to bring the secret recipe back to the Culinary Society. It’s a cute premise for a light, short novella. The book is the same – light, short, and cute.

The plot moves quickly through Jeane’s discovery of secret information on a long-wrecked spaceship to her arrival at the sacred temple of the monks of Umami, seeking to learn the secret wisdom from the last surviving monk. I won’t spoil anything, but the story progresses in staccato bursts through the elements of the chase and to the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. The story gets told, but what’s missing is any of the elements that would have made it compelling or interesting. We never really get to know Jeane, whose character (like all the others in the story) lacks depth or backstory. We never really care about Jeane or whether she succeeds in her quest. We also never learn anything about X (the villain) and can’t really root against him. Similarly, the last monk is a depthless character. There is no suspense, no romance, no violence, no bad language, no peril – in short, no fun. Even the one scene where Jeane seems to be in trouble is resolved quickly and off camera. It’s as if the author is in such a hurry to get to the end of the story that he doesn’t have time to let us see all the details that would have made it interesting.

In the end, the novella feels more like an extended movie trailer, where you see all the important scenes and get to the end of the story, but you feel like you didn’t really see the whole film. The short length is a problem here. I would have preferred this to be a full novel so that the author could have developed the characters, built some tension, established more of a reason for us to care about the quest and about the characters, and where the reader could experience some anxiety about what was happening. As it’s written, it leaves me unsatisfied. It’s not a bad read, it’s just incomplete.

The prose is well crafted for the most part, although the short, choppy paragraphs and clipped dialogue was a little hard to get used to in the beginning. There are few copy editing issues and the author clearly knows where the story is going. The problem is that the outline for the story is 50% as long as the novella. There’s a lot that happens, but the book doesn’t describe the events with enough detail or allow us inside the characters enough for it to be much more than an extended outline. The story itself is not so compelling that it stands on its own without all the supporting elements. It’s cute and short. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you found it. Enjoy the taste.


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