A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the Afterward to this book, the author recounts the tale of how it was published. Apparently it was edited, re-edited, bought, unbought, and passed back and forth for years by editors who couldn't figure it out and had no idea how to market it, until the author finally decided to publish it herself.
To which I say: SHAME on you, editors, for passing on this wonderful story. And THANK YOU, T. Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon, for putting it out into the world. I loved every whimsical, funny, dark, absorbing, amazing page of it.
This may start out sounding like a bog-standard fantasy world, with Mona the fourteen-year-old baker...discovering a dead girl in her aunt's bakery? This is rather a departure from the norm, isn't it? And the thoughtful, droll, pragmatic voice of the protagonist is set right on the first page:
I could tell right away that she was dead. I haven't seen a lot of dead bodies in my life--I'm only fourteen and baking's not exactly a high-mortality profession--but the red stuff oozing out from under her head definitely wasn't raspberry filling.
Mona may be a young teenager, but she's a sensible one. There is no angst or hormonally-driven antics in our protagonist (indeed, thankfully, there's no romance at all, hinted or implied or otherwise). It doesn't fit Mona's character, and she doesn't have time for it anyway, because she is dragged into the effort to save her city from mercenary hordes after the adults can't seem to get their act together to do it themselves.
(Which she comments on, at length. She knows she has no business being the one to save her city, and she resents the fact that she is forced to do so. But after working through her anxieties and her fears, she steps up and does it anyway.)
Mona is a baker, but she is also a minor wizard...whose talent is manipulating dough and bringing it to life. She can soften brick-hard loaves by simply touching them and make gingerbread men dance. Over the course of the book she creates "bad cookies" with cayenne pepper and rat poison that proceed to lay waste to the enemy camp, twelve-foot baked golem dough warriors that hold the gates against the mercenary hordes long enough for the final showdown, and uses her familiar, Bob the carnivorous sourdough starter, to sling hungry, furious, acidic blobs of fizzing dough at the enemy.
That they noticed. Part of it was the simple fact that if you get clocked over the head with a jar, you tend to pay attention. But Bob was angry this morning, and he'd had all night to stew in his own juices, both literally and metaphorically. The Carex who got hit by jars found themselves with a furious slimy mass that burned like acid and which was trying to crawl under their armor.
Then when the dough golems are brought into the battle:
Their archers reached the front lines, knelt, and began shooting at the golems.
I started laughing. I couldn't help it. Stab a bunch of toothpicks into a loaf of bread and you've got...I don't know, an appetizer or something. Not a dead golem, anyhow. Clearly the Carex still had no idea what they were dealing with.
Yes, this book is dark, and people die (although the blood and gore is kept to a minimum). But Mona's character and voice shine throughout, and I laughed out loud many times. She is not some super teen wizard--she gets hungry and exhausted and on one occasion wets herself, but she keeps pressing on to the very end, when she is prepared to sacrifice herself to save her city. At the final showdown, another character steps up, destroying the mercenary army in a terrific scene that is just crying out to be filmed (although the CGI for it would be horrifically expensive). If the room doesn't get dusty when you read that scene, you are a far more hard-hearted reader than I.
The characters are expertly drawn, from Mona to Spindle, the ten-year-old street rat and thief she falls in with, to her Aunt Tabitha, to the ruler of the city, the Duchess, who realizes what a fool she has been in trusting a close advisor who betrayed her and is determined to do everything she can to make it right. (And of course there's Bob the carnivorous sourdough starter, who greets Mona with a yeasty glorp and pats her with an equally endearing and creepy tentacle of dough, and the nameless gingerbread man who is her second familiar and sits on her shoulder everywhere she goes, and on one occasion runs interference with the "bad cookies.") This book is a delight from beginning to end, and I will shout it from the rooftops. Please buy this, so T. Kingfisher will write more uncategorizable, unmarketable, twisty, wonderful books like this one.
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