It's brilliant. Hands down, stone cold brilliant. It's been called the most adult-orientated of all Asterix adventures by people who don't know what they're talking about, e.g. Asterix in Switzerland, but it's true that it's full of alcohol abuse, drunkenness, debauched partying, the slave trade, death in the Colosseum and deliberately terrifying cuisine.
I've always liked this one, but this rereading made me adore it.
Chief Vitalstatistix is visiting his in-laws and he's unhappy. His brother-in-law, Homeopathix, is a rich businessman and a boor who thinks Gauls are morons and bumpkins. Vitalstatistix has to be stopped from suggesting that Homeopathix insert a menhir where the sun doesn't shine. Over dinner, he gets roaring drunk and makes a bet that he'll be able to serve up a dinner that Homoepathix's money couldn't buy. It'll be a stew that's out of this world... seasoned with... SEASONED WITH CAESAR'S LAUREL WREATH! hic.
On hearing this, Asterix does an impression of a soda fountain. Obelix, who's equally drunk, falls into Vitalstatistix's arms and promises to bring him that wreath.
This kick-starts an actual storyline. No, not the usual light tourism. (Wander around obliviously, make trouble, beat up Romans every so often.) As Asterix points out, even magic potion wouldn't be enough to let our heroes survive a frontal assault on Caesar's palace and its elite legionaries. They're going to have to use their brains for once.
This takes our heroes into the slave markets, a rich family's kitchens, prison, wild animals at the Circus Maximum and a band of cut-throats. They get arrested, tried, falsely convicted and sentenced to death for the attempted assassination of Caesar. What's brilliant about all this is its inversion of all sane norms of behaviour. Asterix and Obelix want to be sold as slaves. They want to get arrested. They want to get sentenced to death. They complain that their cell door was broken and had no intention of escaping. They reduce the Circus Maximus's animal handlers to tears.
The book's main comic set-pieces are:
(a) our heroes visiting Homeopathix, leading up to that drunken dinner bet
(b) Asterix trying to get himself returned to the sale market for resale. He's been put in charge of the cooking. What this does to Goldendelicius always used to make me laugh uncontrollably when I was a child.
(c) Asterix's speech for the prosecution at his own trial.
I must also mention Goldendelicius's comedy reaction when Asterix wakes him up at the pub near the end, then of course the last page with Homeopathix living down to expectations. Awesome.
I love Uderzo's art too. Goldendelicius's face is capable of making me laugh, even in panels that aren't supposed to be funny.
Oh wow. I'm so glad I reread this. I love Asterix's recipe. I love the whole thing. I don't quite believe Asterix's claim that they couldn't do a frontal assault on Caesar's palace, but never mind. Magnificent.