Safiyya: This month, Hailey and I read T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, which is about as delightfully kooky as it sounds.
The story follows Mona, a teenage girl with a very unique gift: she can make baked breads come to life. Unfortunately, after Mona stumbles across a dead body in her aunt’s bakery, her special talent draws unwanted attention from a serial killer who is targeting magical people in her city. Mona is unwillingly launched into an adventure of political intrigue, prejudice, heists, murder and mayhem, along with her sidekick gingerbread man, her sourdough starter Bob, and a street-wise urchin named Spindle.
When you’re different, even just a little different, even in a way that people can’t see, you like to know that people in power won’t judge you for it.
– T. Kingfisher
You may or may not have noticed that the world is on fire, and indeed, it has been in this sad state for quite some time. I have a large extended family living in India, and the daily barrage of horrible news is….a lot to deal with. All of which is to say, for whatever reason, I was in exactly the right headspace to read an absurdist fantasy-comedy about a teenage girl with a gingerbread man sidekick.
Reader, I really enjoyed it. I liked Mona, and Spindle, and Bob. I liked the army of evil gingerbread men. I liked the creativity with which Mona used her unusual gift to resolve her problems. I liked the deeper themes about prejudice and scapegoating against a minority group, institutional violence, adults’ responsibilities toward children, and social inequity in a society of plenty. I liked the way that Mona came to understand and cope with the fact that societal institutions and people in power are not always interested in protecting the ones they rule.
This book is very much a classic coming-of-age story. I loved watching Mona’s character evolve as she has to step forward to save the city, when no one else was able or willing to do so. I also loved the weird specificity of her magical talent, which tapped into my unspoken musings about what happens to the X-Men who don’t have battle-oriented talents. (Hailey has informed me that there are, in fact, comic arcs about members of the X-Men who do not have the most tactically useful of abilities.)
I did have a couple complaints, the biggest of which relates to the tone of the writing. As mentioned above, this is an absurdist story, and it is very funny as a result. Unfortunately, the constant use of flippant humour also undercuts the story’s urgency. In theory, there are major consequences at stake here – for instance: the disappearance and death of people with magical gifts, corruption within the city’s highest levels of government, an impending invasion from an outside force. Yet it is hard to really take these issues seriously when the story’s narration doesn’t seem to take them seriously either.
Another complaint is the fact that some of the minor characters come across as somewhat flat, especially Mona’s aunt and uncle. These two characters serve a role in moving along the plot of the story, but they are quickly sidelined in order to generate higher stakes for Mona to overcome, and to allow her greater independence. A good example is what Hailey and I termed as the “Spare Room of Requirement”. Early in the story, we learn that even though Mona is only fourteen, she lives on her own because there is simply no room in her aunt’s house for another person to stay. Much later in the book, Mona drags Spindle back to her aunt’s place rather than leaving him to fend for himself on the streets. Mona’s aunt then insists that Spindle should stay in the never-before-referenced spare room, which was apparently sitting unused in her home while her fourteen-year-old niece lived alone in the city.
But at the end of the day, these complaints were not nearly enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book. It is also worth noting, T. Kingfisher intended to write this book for a younger audience of readers, maybe aged 9-12. She was thwarted by her publishers’ concerns about exposing children to discussions about serial killers, racial prejudice, and institutional injustice (which is nonsense, given that children aged 9-12 are very capable of understanding these things.) As such, it makes sense that the tone of the writing made light of some of the more disturbing material, and that the authority figures get short shrift so that the younger heroes have their moment to shine. In this manner, the book is closer to T. Kingfisher’s novel Minor Mage than it is to her more adult stories such as The Twisted Ones or The Hollow Places.
I found A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking to be a delightful, magical, and unapologetically absurdist journey, with some surprisingly deeper themes and ideas. I would particularly recommend it for readers who are looking for a magical adventure in the vein of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain stories, or for anyone who just needs a fun and enjoyable break.
Hailey: Ok, so difference in opinion here. I really wanted to love this book but it fell a quite flat for me. I felt a bit like I was reading a first draft of a potentially interesting story that hadn’t been “polished” yet. There were so many brilliant ideas and social commentaries waiting to be further developed, it just didn’t reach the mark yet. As Safiyya mentioned, many of the side characters felt one-dimensional which is always a pet-peeve of mine. Also, at one point Mona’s uncle is referred to by a completely different name, so clearly a bit more editing was needed. As for the “Spare Room of Requirement”, that nearly drove me … well, spare.
I love middle-grade books so that wasn’t the issue for me, I just felt like there was something lacking. I really had to trudge through the book to complete it by our book discussion date – I was very easily distracted and did not feel immersed in the story in the way I’d want to with a fantasy book. To me it felt a bit like a poor imitation of a Terry Pratchett novel, but in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking the irreverent tone was more distracting than humourous. Ostensibly, a storyline about a magician-targeting serial killer should be pretty riveting, but to me it didn’t really feel like there was much at stake and I was left fairly ambivalent.
I did really enjoy Mona’s pint-sized gingerbread familiar and plucky street urchin Spindle, they kept me pushing through the story (to be honest, I was more concerned about the safety of the little cookie than any of the other characters!) Bob was also one of the funniest parts of the book but he has certainly put me off sourdough bread for the foreseeable future (yikes!)
So at the end of the day, this definitely was a miss for me. However, one book not resonating with me is not sufficient evidence for me to form an opinion on an author’s writing. I’d actually been wanting to read Paladin’s Grace before Safiyya had picked this buddy read so I’m going to give T. Kingfisher another go in the future.
Until next time readers!
After a minute, I said, “I never wanted to be a hero.”
His face was solemn. “Nobody ever does.”
– T Kingfisher