A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
A dead body is an awful thing to find on the floor of a bakery, especially when you’re a fourteen-year-old baker’s assistant with just a minor talent in magic, enough to make gingerbread men dance and biscuit dough turn fluffy on command. It’s worse when the city inquisitor decides to accuse you of the murder, for no particularly good reason. It’s even worse when you realize that there’s a mysterious assassin on the loose, targeting people who have magical powers, no matter how insignificant.
Mona is an orphan who works in her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery, using her talent with baking (and a little magic) to help with her job. It’s not an easy life, but Mona loves being an apprentice baker … and there’s the fact that her magical powers only work with bread products. But the city government and constables are turning against wizards, even minor ones like Mona, and the assassin seems to have a nose for tracking down and killing anyone with magical powers. Soon all wizards, great and small, are abandoning the city, and Mona is on the run.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (2020) is T. Kingfisher’s latest in a run of excellent middle grade fantasies featuring intrepid children and young teens, including Summer in Orcus and Minor Mage. The baking details give this fantasy an unusual and down-to-earth spin. It’s fun to see Mona bringing a rather stale gingerbread man to life, but to have the gingerbread man unexpectedly develop its own personality is, well, icing on the cake.
Something patted my cheek. I looked down and saw the gingerbread man on my shoulder. He was steadying himself with a hank of hair in one hand, and with the other he reached up and caught the tears I hadn’t known I was crying.
Kingfisher’s fantasies are reminiscent of Robin McKinley’s work, with whimsical details and amusing parenthetical remarks. The main characters are well-rounded and come alive on the page. Often charming and personable animals are part of both authors’ formulas, but here instead of an animal sidekick we have animated gingerbread men and other bakery products with minds of their own, not to mention Bob the belching sourdough starter. Bob is a scene stealer, which is something I never would have guessed I would say about a gloppy bucket of yeast and dough that extends tentacles.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is, like Minor Mage and Summer in Orcus, somewhat darker than may be the norm for middle grade fantasies. While people (even good ones!) die and those adults who should be in charge are fallible, this is still ultimately an uplifting and empowering tale. It’s about people who don’t really want to be heroes — who shouldn’t even have to be heroes — but still rise to the occasion when others have failed, because they’re needed.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is whimsical and dark and imaginative and fantastic. It gets my enthusiastic recommendation for readers both young and old.