The fact that T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) is a treasure to the SFF community is no secret. Having been a fan of her fairy tale retellings for many years, I am so glad that she is finally getting the acclaim she deserves. This book is not only a Lodestar finalist but, at the time I’m writing this, already an Andre Norton winner! Congratulations T. Kingfisher on a well-deserved award win! May you write many more of these hilarious books, whether for adults or children, with or without magic. I’ll read them all.
A WIZARD’S GUIDE TO DEFENSIVE BAKING
by T. Kingfisher
Published: Argyll Productions, 2020
eBook: 318 pages
My rating: 7.75/10
Opening line: There was a dead girl in my aunt’s bakery.
Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.
But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…
Mona is a 14-year-old baker who also happens to be a magician. While in this world, there are magicians who can do awesome stuff like control the weather, have super strength, call down lightning from the sky, or wield fire as a weapon, Mona’s skills are… not quite as impressive . Her magical abilities are limited to dough. Since she’s been orphaned, she’s been working in her aunt and uncle’s bakery. She makes sure the bread dough rises evenly, occasionally makes the gingerbread cookies dance for the shoppers, and generally enjoys her job. Oh, she also accidentally made a sourdough starter come to life somehow. He’s called Bob and lives in the cellar. They feed him flour but that doesn’t mean he can’t snatch a rat or two when he feels like it. Bob is great!
Mona’s life is upset when she finds the dead body of a young girl in the bakery and is promptly suspected of killing her herself. She is whisked off to the palace to be tried and from there slithers into a way bigger barrel of shenanigans than she could have suspected. Adventure, magic, conspiracies, and lots of danger ensue. After all, Mona didn’t kill that girl but the person who did seems to be assassinating magical folks exclusively.
As with anything T. Kingfisher writes, you’ll immediately notice the charming style in which this story is told. I dare you to read two pages and not love Mona! She is a sensible 14-year-old girl who makes for a great protagonist, not only because she is relatable (as much as a wizard can be, I guess) but because her concerns are so very normal. Are you one of the people who wonder why in the Lord of the Rings nobody ever has to pee? Well, Mona has a whole lot to say about that because when your bladder is full, it’s pretty tough thinking about anything other than finding a place to relieve yourself, no matter how vehemently you are accused of murder…
Her relationship to her family and her doughy familiars – namely, sourdough starter Bob and one very protective gingerbread man – are as adorable as they are funny. Seriously, this entire book manages to combine hilarious humor with serious events and believable emotional connections between characters. Even if one of them rides a dead horse skeleton.
You won’t find world building on the scale of an epic fantasy here, but what you will get is a surprisingly touching and exciting plot in which the magic system plays a vital role. Mona’s bread magic may not seem like it’s good for much but the message here is that, no matter how insignificant you may feel, there is greatness in everyone. All it takes is a bit of creativity, working together, and a quick mind. And T. Kingfisher’s characters have that in spades. They also have the uncanny ability to sneak their way into your heart. For the most part while I read this book I thought I only really cared about Mona, but woe the day when somebody threatens Bob or Mona’s aunt Tabitha. I caught myself holding my breath during moments of danger, I found myself smiling at the Duchess, fearing for Spindle (Mona’s new friend from the more unsavory parts of town), and almost crying when Mona was faced with decisions and responsibilities no 14-year-old girl should have to face. I can’t tell you how Kingfisher does it, but she is really good at making you love her characters without even realizing it.
I had so much fun reading this book, especially because the plot started out as one thing (a murder mystery with magic) and then grew and grew and ended up being rather epic. And although it is definitely a very funny book, it also has a lot of heart. I’m quite happy the story is finished and offered a satisfying ending but I would definitely not be opposed to the further adventures of Mona or her friends. Hell, I’d read a whole book about Bob if it was written by T. Kingfisher. I am so happy she got the Andre Norton Award for this. I will be gifting it to many people, especially when they look like they need a smile.
MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Excellent