Blurb & Info
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…
Publication Date: July 21, 2020
Publisher: Argyll Productions
I picked this book to be part of my 2021 A to Z Reading Challenge, but as soon as I read the first page I knew that A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking was written for me.
This is not literally true — Ursula Vernon (aka T. Kingfisher) is completely unaware of my existence, and did not mention me in the dedication. However, I like to bake and I adore quirky fantasy. It also helped that I really enjoyed one of Kingfisher’s other works, The Raven and the Reindeer (read my review here). In short, my collision with this book was inevitable, and I am very happy that it happened sooner rather than later.
What really got me about this book, what dug a hook into my side and fastened me to Mona’s narrative, was how even though A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is definitely YA fiction, the stakes are high and the danger feels… real. Mona feels like a very genuine fourteen year old girl; she has moments of indecision, moments of doubt, moments of terror and hopelessness and not knowing what to do, moments of wanting an adult to step in and make sure everything will be alright. She is not a helpless, passive damsel in distress, but she is still a child, and the way Kingfisher wrote about the life-threatening danger Mona sometimes faced kept me on the edge of my seat. I can easily imagine a younger reader really enjoying that element of danger and finding it thrilling, but as an adult I was terrified for Mona.
I was also enraged on her behalf. Kingfisher has a style that is very reminiscent of Terry Pratchett without feeling like a cheap knock-off, and part of that similarity is how she blends a lot of anger and social commentary into the humor and absurdity of the story. Mona is a witch who can make gingerbread men dance the can-can on the bakery counter, but as a “magicker” she is part of a persecuted minority in her city-state. That persecution goes beyond micro-aggressions and into physical violence, and suddenly Mona is the only magicker left in a besieged and otherwise defenseless city.
You know the system is well and truly broken when the adult leaders of a besieged city are heaping all of the responsibility of defending their people and homes onto the shoulders of a fourteen year old girl. There is a surprising amount of rage in this book, and a lot of it is directed towards not just those who persecute the magickers, but also the ones who allowed that persecution to happen and then were dismayed when they realized they needed a magicker’s help. The emotion in this book is just extraordinary to me; I was crying toward the end.
To balance out all of this intensity, however, is the aforementioned humor and absurdity. Because Mona works in a bakery and the story is told in the first person perspective through Mona’s eyes, the narration is rife with bread and pastry-related metaphors. Bob the sourdough starter was an absolute delight, and I loved the shenanigans of the “evil” gingerbread men.
Not only that, but all of the background world-building was very nicely done; everything was well thought-out and logical, and Mona’s city-state felt like a real, functioning place… the zombie crawfish that crawl out of the canals downstream of the cathedral after the priests get reckless with the extra holy water were a nice touch.
Overall, this is definitely a fun book, but beneath the flaky pastry layers are some hard truths and commentary about the powerful figures who neglect those they are supposed to protect. I would recommend A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking to literally anyone.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of 5