Rating: 5 out of 5
T. Kingfisher’s fantasy novel A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is nominally a children’s book, but it’s totally readable for adults. Also, as with many of Kingfisher’s works, there are dark parts to it.
Mona is a 14-year-old wizard of bread. She helps her Aunt Tabitha run her bakery. She can make the gingerbread men dance, convince bread not to burn, and her sourdough starter is so over-eager that she named it Bob. But everything changes for her when she finds a girl dead on the floor of the bakery when she comes in to open in the morning. The constables don’t really care much about what’s going on, and Inquisitor Oberon seems awfully eager to see Mona go down for the murder–he seems to have something against wizards, even one as minor as Mona. Though Mona manages to regain her freedom, she ends up meeting a street kid called Spindle, whose sister was the dead body Mona discovered. Before long Mona and Spindle are on the run, there’s a registry that wizards have to put themselves on, and the constables seem to be in cahoots with Oberon. Wizards are at the very least going missing, and rumor has it they’re being killed. The famous hero of the army is outside of the city on a hunt for Carex mercenaries, and the Duchess, who runs the city, is someone Mona is certain wouldn’t agree to everything that’s going on. There’s also someone called “the Spring Green Man” who’s rumored to be killing wizards.
The mood of this is outstanding. Humor and dark fantasy are braided together in an amazing skein of whimsical drama. People die. People get hurt. And yet Mona’s at-times humorous observations don’t in any way interfere with that mood–instead they enhance it. She has essentially two familiars: a gingerbread man whom she seems to have given intelligence to, and Bob. (Bob is happy to eat the rats when no one is around to feed him flour and water. No one tell the customers!) I’m amazed at how Kingfisher made me genuinely care about the fates of stale gingerbread and a sometimes-homicidal sourdough starter.
I love the magic system in this book–which is to say, there isn’t one. People just tend to be wizards of bizarre things, like the woman who can make horse skeletons get up and walk. They often won’t even know that they’re a wizard until they bump into just the right situation to set off their magic. Because magic is so haphazard, there are no spells. There are no schools of wizardry. There are no mentors to teach wizards how to be what they are. Instead, it’s all about gaining a handle on the scope of their powers, and then being just as creative as they damn well can be. There’s an absolutely stunning battle in here that pushes Mona to her limits and beyond. I mean really, how could anyone expect a bread wizard to help defend the city?
There’s a fabulous theme of what it really means when children have to be the heroes in a world full of grownups, and how those grownups must have failed for the situation to get to that point. There are parallels to real-world situations in what happens once a would-be despot gets hold of some power. I can’t say enough good things about this novel.