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Asterix and the Banquet is the fifth book in the Asterix series by Goscinny and Uderzo and first appeared in 1963. The book begins with a General Overanxious arriving at the Roman camp of Compendium on an urgent mission from Caesar. Overanxious tells the Centurion that Caesar is sick of the Gaul village that stills defies Roman rule and demands that he ready the men for an immediate attack. 'But those Gauls are dangerous!' warns the Centurion. 'They have magical powers!' 'Nonsense!' barks Overanxious. 'Sound the assembly!' After the magic potion enhanced Gauls give the Romans a predictable bashing, Overanxious decides on a new approach. He decides to isolate the Gauls and build a gigantic wall around their village to shut them off from the outside world. 'Since you're so clever by Minerva, I'm shutting you in your village!' he tells Asterix and Chief Vitastatix from a huge tower over the wall.
Asterix is rather annoyed by this ('Gaul is our country O Roman and we'll go where we like in it!') and tells Overanxious that he bets he can escape the blockade and travel all over Gaul collecting local food delacies for a banquet. Overanxious agrees to the wager and says that if Asterix supplies proof in the form of this food at the banquet he will raise the siege and go back to Rome and admit he failed to Caesar. Asterix and Obelix duly set off on their mission to get through the wall and collect the best grub Gaul has to offer with Overanxious determined to stop them at all costs...
Asterix and the Banquet is another good one in the Asterix series and a lot of fun. The Asterix plots can sometimes be a little simplistic (and sometimes clever & satirical to be fair) but the relatively straight forward conceit here actually works to the book's advantage and makes this one of the most entertaining entries in the series. The story simply consists of Asterix and Obelix racing around Gaul picking up samples of the most famous food the various regions have to offer with the Romans out to stop them at every turn. Food plays a big part in the Asterix stories and it is even more important in Asterix and the Banquet which adds to the enjoyment of the book and is generally interesting as we learn which places are famous for what. Asterix and Obelix have to travel to Lutetia (Paris) for the local ham, Camaracum (Cambrai) for humbugs, Tolosa (Toulouse) for sausages, Massilia (Marseilles) for fish stew, Burgidala (Bordeaux) for the oysters and white wine and so on.
The humour often comes from the manner in which Asterix and Obelix keep taking over boats and ships to get away from the Romans with the exasperated occupants of these crafts still onboard. A bemused holidaymaker has his rowing boat commandeered by them in Nice in amusing fashion with Obelix's magic potion enhanced rowing taking them far away in no time at all. 'That's the last time I ever go to the South of Gaul on holiday!' he grumbles as he begins the the long journey back to Nice carrying his rowing boat. The supporting characters we meet during the journey are as ever always interesting and fun with numerous types of Gauls - some to be trusted and some not - encountered by Asterix and Obelix. One who can be trusted is Jelibabix, head of the Gaulish resistance movement in Lugdunum and there are a funny series of panels where he arranges for the locals to confuse a group of Romans looking for Asterix and Obelix in the maze like streets. 'Lugdunum has any amount of alleyways, a positive maze of them, where the romans hesitate to venture, well, we'll lure them in!'
There are some great bits in the book like a shady inkeeper called Uptotrix trying to claim the bounty on Asterix and Obelix's head by serving them wild boar laced with sedative and another great bit where a weary Asterix and Obelix tire of walking in the dark and decide to call it a night and take a nap - only to wake up in the middle of a Roman camp. 'What luck!' says Obelix waking up. 'Mind if I start without you Asterix?' The incompetent pirates that are always running into Asterix and Obelix and coming off second best and having their ship sunk return again for a cameo (and a joke in Latin) and Asterix and the Banquet is also famous for the first appearance by Obelix's little dog Dogmatix. Dogmatix appears in Lutetia outside a butcher's shop and follows them for the whole journey in hope of a bone without them noticing him until the end. It was supposed to be a one-off joke for readers to spot but Dogmatix proved so popular they had no choice to keep him in the series as Obelix's pet pooch.
As usual, the art is very pleasant in Asterix and the Banquet with nice colourful drawings of thatched cottages, wooden bridges and huts, Romans, horse drawn carts, woodland and animals, cobbled streets, waterways, ships, chimneys, and old inns with barrels and steaming plates of boar. I especially like the panel depicting Lugdunum from the top of a hill as Asterix and Obelix escape and a little bridge crosses a stream into all the houses with some sort of temple high above it. Asterix and the Banquet is a fun entry in the popular series that manages to pile on the humour without becoming tiresome and keeps things moving with an interesting central story that allows the author to make some jokes about regional stereotypes and Roman life in general.
I find with Asterix that there are always a few bits/jokes that don't really seem to translate and leave one a little confused but these books are still great fun even if you are reading the English language version. The food theme to the story is very enjoyable and the quest to collect all this speciality grub for the banquet to trump General Overanxious will pass the time in entertaining and amusing fashion for readers of all ages.