A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking

by T. Kingfisher

Cover image

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio
Copyright: July 2020
ASIN: B08CJ86Y1W
Format: Kindle
Pages: 287

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Mona is fourteen, an orphan, and works in the bakery owned by her Aunt Tabitha. She's also a magicker, although a very minor one. She can tell bread to do things, like bake properly or slice itself, and can make gingerbread men dance. Also, there's Bob, her sourdough starter, into whom she put a bit too much panicked magic when she was ten. Her magic is a useful small talent for a baker, but nothing all that exceptional.

The dead body she finds in the kitchen when opening the bakery is certainly exceptional.

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking starts as a minor murder mystery. There are constables and sweet buns and Mona is accused of murder by an officious inquisitor, which was rather terrifying, but everything seems like it will work out and get back to normal. Except it won't, because someone is murdering magickers and the authorities who are supposed to be helping Mona don't appear to be on her side.

This is a very Ursula Vernon sort of book. (T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym that Vernon uses when not writing children's books.) The protagonist is brave, scared, and stubborn, the first-person narration has a stream-of-consciousness feel and an undercurrent of constant curiosity, and the story has a strong "this is awful but moping about it won't help so we may as well get on with it" energy. It is (as you might guess from the age of the protagonist) pitched a bit younger than Vernon's other recent Kingfisher work. If I had to classify it, I'd call it young adult possibly edging into middle grade.

It's also a book about creative use of magic powers. If you're the sort of person who liked analyzing an apparently unimpressive superpower and thinking up all the creative ways in which it could be quite powerful, well, that's a lot of the plot here. Vernon sticks to the rules of the game: Mona can only affect bread and dough and maybe icing in tiny ways if she tries very hard (but it gives her a headache). But there are a lot of creative ways that one can use dough and cookies, particularly once you get some help.

The other interesting and unusual thing about this book is its attitude towards authorities and heroism. Authorities who try to do good and authorities who are evil and corrupt are both common in fantasy. Authorities who let themselves get caught up in a tangle of small decisions and minor fears until they become ineffective are not quite as common, and usually fantasy dispenses with that sort of power by calling it weak and inviting the heroes to take over. This book does not go in that direction at all. It's startling and thought-provoking to see a fantasy novel treat Mona's elevation into unwanted heroism as an indefensible societal failure that is not excused by gratitude. This more than any other story element made this feel like a 2020 book.

I won't spoil the ending, but it caught me by surprise, was extremely moving, and further broadens that questioning of what heroism is and why we celebrate it.

This is not a book full of complex plotting or moral ambiguity. The villain is awful, the threat he provokes is rather thoroughly dehumanized, and the plot is a reasonably straightforward sequence of events. One reads this book for Mona's flustered first-person voice, Vernon's humor and no-nonsense morality, and the creative exploration of the limits of what one can do with bread magic and a seriously irritated sourdough starter. And the thoughtfulness about heroism, and the recognition that heroism comes with an impact that the rest of society doesn't want to think about.

To be clear, that thoughtfulness doesn't go beyond questioning here. This is still a heroism book. But it made me want to read the fantasy novel in which people work collectively to remake a society so that it won't need to have heroes again.

I think whether you like Vernon's previous Kingfisher books, particularly the more young adult ones, will strongly predict whether you like A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. If you like her protagonists, recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-31

Last modified and spun 2021-01-01