I was a little late to the A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, but I’m glad I finally got it; this one is both fun and a little inventive. The basic story is plucky heroine with limited resources faces off against unknown and then known end-of-the-world kind of badness, and triumphs with the help of some friends. Said heroine is 14-year-old Mona, who lives as a magic user in a world mostly suspicious of magic. Mona’s magic only works on baked goods, which is just as well since she’s a talented baker and lives with an aunt and uncle who run a bakery. This involves an animated gingerbread cookie with some attitude, and a somewhat sentient and possibly carnivorous sourdough starter named Bob. Bob might be the most entertaining concept in the whole thing.
Mona gets dragged into a murder mystery as the only official suspect of a questionable investigator, mostly because she found the body of a girl about her age in the bakery, and she has magic. It turns out there’s a murderer targeting magic-users, and a political campaign of fear urging everyone to report magic users to the government. There’s an attempted coup, and Mona as a result of the political persecution, might just be her city’s only hope as one of the only magicians left in the city with the army off on some sort of missing. This sounds like there should be a lot of action, and there’s plenty, but the middle third of the novel really drags because Mona spends most of it in hiding; she’s the narrator which means she can only tell us what’s reported to her, mostly by Spindle, the younger brother of the victim Mona found, and who helps her navigate the under-belly of the city. Molly kind of helps here too, but her real role and background isn’t the focus of this part; that comes elsewhere.
The whole premise of bakery magic is interesting, but then Mona has to figure out how to use it to defend first herself and then her world; some of the solutions are interesting. Some of the people who end up coming out to help are as well; Bob is involved, “bad cookies” are called upon to help sabotage the enemy army, and Mona has to deal with a lot of incompetent adults, including the Duchess who is in danger of being deposed. The only adult who Mona seems to look up to, besides her aunt and uncle, is the ”Golden General” who looks like the hero he’s reputed to be, and his openness about what being heroic means is actually pretty interesting; a character with his appearance and reputation is usually either a dumb jock, incompetent pretty boy, or a good candidate for villainy; he’s actually none of those things.
The whole thing is one the one hand a fairly standard coming of age fantasy, but it’s got a more realistic handle on some of the character emotions and motivations, at least for the good guys; the villains are pretty much power-hungry stereotypes, but that’s fine. It’s almost preferable to the villain with a sad backstory. Mona is a pretty believable 14-year old, her aunt and uncle both have enough personality and feeling to support her, the General has both decency and power which is a tad unusual in fantasy, and then there’s the attitude of Bob and the ginger-bread cookie who never gets a name; those two have about as much personality as anyone else, and given what they are, makes you kind of wonder what might be going on in their “heads” (Bob probably doesn’t really have one, so…).