Review by Nathan Hopp
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher is certainly one of the more…odd novels I’ve read in recent memory. On the surface, it sounds less like a fantasy novel for young adults and more like the name of a Hogwarts textbook, doesn’t it? And going into this novel, I certainly broke one of the more traditional rules by judging a book by its cover.
I seriously cannot think of any other book that has managed to combine fantasy and cooking together in a way that is fun and creative with its premise, while also being able to remain epic in its small-scale setting.
So, what’s the story? In the city-state of Riverbraid lives a fourteen-year-old girl named Mona who works day-to-day in her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery. When she isn’t serving customers or feeding the living sourdough starter that she keeps in her basement (aptly named Bob), she likes to use her magicker abilities to create and bake the tastiest of bread. She even likes to entertain some by animating gingerbread men to dance and perform tricks in her spare time.
That is, until she wakes up one morning to discover a dead girl’s body in her workspace. Due to the circumstances and even the prejudice of a leading Inquisitor named Oberon, Mona is immediately suspected of the murder despite her supposed lack of adaptability in using bread for magic, especially in committing something as vile as murder.
Worse for Mona, a serial killer called the Spring Green Man is rumored to be the one responsible for the girl—revealed to be a magicker like her named Tabbie—being murdered in her bakery, and is actively targeting magic users. Now with the help of Tabbie’s younger brother, a ten-year-old street thief named Spindle, and a variety of strange and whimsical characters to aid her, Mona must avoid being captured or killed in a city that she’s lived all her life in, while trying to unravel the mystery of the Spring Green Man. Some of these characters include a crazed magicker named Knackering Molly, who can bring dead horses to life, her extremely caring Aunt Tabitha, her war veteran Uncle Albert, and even the Duchess of Riverbraid herself.
Forgetting about the fantasy setting and the imaginative idea of a "wizard baker" for a moment, what really holds A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is its charm. Riverbraid is charming, its inhabitants are charming, and everything about the setting has a wholesomeness to it without detracting from the unease of prejudices and gritty dangers around every corner.
You easily connect to Mona as a protagonist, understanding how she feels such low self-esteem in herself but not in her craft as a baker. After all, once I started reading this book, I did not know what to expect regarding "bread magic" and if it had any applications. However, that all changed as the novel progressed and Mona—and you, as the reader—start to think outside the box about what it can do. How much magic does it take to animate a small object? Can Mona animate a large amount of bread dough? Can they think for themselves? What can bread be used for to escape life-or-death situations? These questions, combined with the decent mystery she’s trying to unravel, makes Mona an interesting protagonist to get behind.
Spindle is also very likable, like a cross between Tom Sawyer and a snarky, unapologetically blunt street urchin who wants to see justice brought to his sister’s murderer. At times, he can be grating and act like a brat, but he is a kid, and the brother/sister dynamic between him and Mona does allow his character to shine as a rambunctious but kind-hearted young boy going through almost the same turmoil.
Aunt Tabitha has to be one of the great fictional aunts in fantasy, the novel going so far as to describe her as being placed on this Earth to feed anybody in need. The characters who surprised me the most in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking were probably the Duchess of Riverbraid herself, as well as the small but feisty gingerbread man who sticks with Mona throughout her misadventures as her faithful familiar. Really, Kingfisher went above and beyond to figure out ways to create so many out-of-the-box ways to give a personality to what basically amounts to an edible treat.
Aside from prejudice towards magickers as well as corruption among authority figures, the novel also managed to explore themes of hero worship and how most heroes are only fallible and human. There’s a brilliant speech Uncle Albert makes near the middle of the book about how sometimes a hero is only made because a system failed to do its job in preventing a catastrophe from occurring. Even if the hero is applauded and the problem is fixed, nobody thinks about why it even happened in the first place. That is a difficult perspective to explain, but Kingfisher found a way to convey it without being too pessimistic.
If I really had to nitpick some things and find some elements to complain about, it would have to revolve around the current draft. I’ve noticed how Kingfisher has multiple moments where she switches between past tense and present tense. One minute, Mona is monologuing to herself (and the audience) about how her magical abilities are second-rate compared to the more widely experienced readers, like she is writing it in a journal, while the next it feels like we are following her thoughts directly in present tense.
Sometimes, I also feel like A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking could have benefited from at least one more rewrite in certain sections throughout. Some scenes either go on too long, repeat statements we already know as the reader, or are left too vague. One such example for the latter is the fact I have almost no idea what Mona looks like, or even which hair color she has. Normally, I don’t mind it because too much description isn’t a good thing to have in a story, but it is distracting for some readers like me.
However, they are only small details compared to what an entertaining and fun read T. Kingfisher’s latest young adult novel entails. With a dash of Disney’s The Owl House and a pinch of Hayao Miyazaki, mixed together with an interesting fantasy setting with wholesome characters and an epic climax of bread magic in the final battle, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking will interest those who love to read as well as bake. I certainly feel hungry for more.