T. Kingfisher’s 2020 A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is a standalone secondary-world fantasy.
Fourteen-year-old Mona opens up her aunt’s bakery in the wee hours of the morning and finds a murdered girl on the bakery floor. Mona alerts her aunt and the pair summon the police. This, as it turns out, is both the responsible thing to do and a decision that will greatly complicate Mona’s life.
The sinister Inquisitor Oberon takes the lead on the investigation. Means, motive, opportunity: Mona has two of those and no doubt sufficient diligence can force a motive out of her. Worse yet, she is a known magicker. She is promptly arrested for murder.
Oberon’s efficient approach to justice is confounded during the hearing that follows. The Duchess of Riverbraid takes an interest in the case. Once it becomes clear that Oberon has no proof that Mona killed the dead girl, Mona is set free. She soon discovers who the dead girl is — Tibbie, a magically talented sneak thief in the habit of raiding the bakery for food — but the mystery of who killed her is left for another day.
Some magickers, ones like Lord Ethan the Golden General, ones whose gifts have military applications, are encouraged to join the city’s army. Others whose gifts have no obvious defensive or offensive use — like Mona’s baking magic — are left to their own devices. They are not universally loved. While Riverbraid is officially tolerant of magickers, no normal person wants a magicker to marry their sister.
This grudging toleration vanishes when posters go up denouncing the magickers as potential traitors working with the city’s enemies. All magickers are required to register with the city. Meanwhile, magickers are vanishing one by one. A suspicious person might wonder if magickers who register are later disappeared into night and fog.
Tibbie’s killer targets Mona. She escapes only because the Spring Green Man, as the killer is known. makes the mistake of attacking her in her aunt’s bakery. Mona sics Bob, her semi-intelligent, rat-eating sourdough starter, on the assassin and escapes in the confusion.
Mona can connect the dots. Someone is targeting the city’s magickers. That someone is almost certainly Oberon. She has no means of attacking such a well-placed foe. Her only hope is to appeal to the Duchess. Unfortunately, the Duchess does not leave her palace and is unlikely to grant an audience to some baker girl. Bold measures are called for.
Assisted by Tibbie’s grieving brother Spindle, Mona sneaks into the Duchess’ quarters via her garderobe. Success! She finds a sympathetic ear in the Duchess. Unfortunately, Mona also finds that she has misread city politics and that her troubles (and Riverbraid’s troubles) are only beginning.
A garderobe is a privy much like a very fancy outhouse. Sneaking into castle through one is just as disgusting as you might expect.
This is a standalone but there is ample room for a sequel. Which I would enjoy reading 😊
There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through the book in which the Duchess makes head-smackingly bad decision. It is what I assume is a politically-constrained decision about how best to deal with an enemy of the state. Riverbraid seems to be an echo of Venice in many ways. Presumably this involves a flexible approach to civil liberties, but in this instance the well-born cannot be dispatched even if that’s convenient. Not only does this reflect rudimentary progress towards rule of law, it leaves a crucial player free to commit shenanigans.
Riverbraid sees some magic as dangerous (and suitable for military use) and some as trivial and harmless. As the plot unfurls, we discover just how arbitrary those categories are. What matters is not flashiness (fireballs) but ingenuity (malicious gingerbread men). Baking magic may appear harmlessly utilitarian, but this illusion will vanish as soon as a raging sourdough starter starts to digest one’s face.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defense Baking is an entertaining YA diversion that will encourage younger readers to consider just how easily they might be scapegoated by an ambitious politician. They will also learn that, should the local constabulary turn on them, their once-friendly neighbours will no doubt leap to betray them. In these precarious times, it is well that the kiddos learn these truths early.
If that is not sufficient reason to buy this, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is narrated by a very reluctant teen hero. Her voice is skilfully scripted by Kingfisher; her adventures evince courage beyond reason. What more could one want?