a wizard's guide to defensive baking

Last year when the world began grinding to a halt, I started calling people more often – people I love (siblings, friends, etc.) but know are mostly busy with full time jobs, relationships, and the other important bits of life. Many of these people live in different time zones, so it has always been tough to make it work. But when I got my brother on the phone and babbled about making sourdough starter from scratch, he told me how much he had loved T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. And I promised to read it, and then didn’t… Later on, my sister ALSO picked it up and said I’d like it, and I said okay, and… didn’t pick it up (you see the theme here). Finally, my sister gave me the book as a birthday gift, and I finally, finally read it last Sunday.

a wizard's guide to defensive baking by t. kingfisher
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…

In A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, main character Mona is a minor magical talent – and a fourteen-year-old orphan working in a bakery. Mona’s affinity is for bread: making it rise, keeping it moist and delicious, and, from her earliest days, making gingerbread men dance. The book begins with Mona finding a dead body in the bakery, and never stops building from there: soon Mona learns that other wizards have gone missing, is warned to watch out for someone called the “Spring Green Man,” and finds herself hiding in a church tower. Eventually, everything spirals to an ending full of bread, battle, and unlikely heroism.


Author Kingfisher (a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon) writes in the author’s note that she struggled to find a traditional publishing home for the book, and ended up going with a very small press. I can see why. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking has a lot of the trappings of a middle grade book (poop humor, disdain for adults/musings on adult incompetence, etc.), and yet is too violent to fit into that category neatly, what with dead bodies to start, undead horses, multiple murders witnessed by the child protagonists, and a pitched battle by the end. It’s a LOT to fit into one narrative, and the first half of the book suffers from this lack of direction. The second half of the book recovers with good pacing, inventiveness, and a swift slide into battle, but never quite makes up for the lack of consistent worldbuilding.


What I liked: Mona’s carnivorous (sentient??) sourdough starter Bob – and yes, it’s as ridiculous and funny as it sounds – and his antics. Mona’s sense of humor and internal dialogue are also delightful, along with her very teenage, and founded, frustrations with adults and their ineptitude. I also appreciated the window into how tough the baking life is (early mornings, lots of hard work, and little thanks!) and Mona’s capricious gingerbread cookie men.


What I didn’t like: starting the book with a dead body on the floor almost turned me away permanently. This isn’t billed as a murder mystery, and to frame it as one in the first chapter is… false advertising. I also thought the political system was very hand-wavy (accurate, I suppose, if we only go off of Mona’s understanding), and found it suspect that Mona doesn’t have any friends, barely any family, and next-to-no knowledge of the workings of the city she lives in. Even with anti-magic prejudice, Mona’s lack of community, given her personality and strengths, is hard to come to terms with. Finally, Spindle’s thieves cant came and went, and that drove me up a (linguistic) wall, along with the mishmash of historical time periods and references. I couldn’t tie the setting to anything I knew, and the little bits and pieces provided didn’t come together into a cohesive whole.


The book needed at least one map of Riverbraid, Mona’s city, and possibly a diagram of the Duchess’ garderobe (or perhaps a cross-section of the whole palace). There are probably other things that could have been removed or added to pull it all together, but I am not the expert on that – I just know it just needed a nudge, though in what direction, I couldn’t tell you.


In all, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is a funny-silly story that manages to merge magic, baking, murder, and musings on responsibility and heroism into a slightly lumpy but satisfying whole.


Recommended for: anyone who liked Robin McKinley’s Sunshine (especially the titular heroine herself), fans of the Gingerbread Man from the animated Shrek films, and readers who enjoy YA and MG fantasy, especially with strong lashings of humor.


This post is part of Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg of The Intrepid Reader. Learn more about Weekend Cooking here.


Mae Travels said...

Magical sourdough is really a great element in the book “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan. From what you wrote, I’d say it’s a much better book. And it has no gratuitous violence, just lots of magical realism.

best…mae at maefood.blogspot.com

Tina said...

Great description of funny and silly but the magical elements appeal to me very much.

Beth F said...

Love the sound of this -- fun summer escape reading.

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