I haven’t held back on my love for T. Kingfisher, though I’ve not been particularly tempted in reading her fantasy or her work for children under her “real” name, Ursula Vernon. What I liked about Kingfisher’s horror was the sarcasm and how masterfully humor and horror entwined themselves into one deliciously disorienting plot that was sure to give me nightmares. So when I saw A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking come out under Kingfisher’s name but that it was ostensibly for children, I was unsure whether it would be for me. When I saw the nominations and awards piling up around it, I was convinced enough to give it a try.
I’m not sure it was exactly the “T. Kingfisher Experience™” that I was expecting, but it was a funny and imaginative and magical adventure that I couldn’t put down.
A Wizard’s Guide starts off pretty direly, when 14-year-old apprentice baker Mona comes down to her aunt’s bakery to start the day’s goods and finds a girl dead on the bakery floor. Things get even more dire when the head investigator pins the blame on her because the death carries with it the taint of magic, and Mona is a wizard—albeit a very minor wizard whose talents are limited mainly to making bread rise and gingerbread cookies dance. This excuse is not enough for the investigator and Mona is hauled away for an inquisition before the Duchess. Fortunately, the Duchess dismisses the accusation readily. Not-so-fortunately, it becomes quickly clear in the days that follow Mona’s arrest and release that someone has it in for other magic users. When the same killer who slayed the girl in the bakery (another minor wizard who happened to break into the bakery while being pursued) tries and fails to kill Mona, Mona runs for safety with the dead girl’s brother, Spindle.
As the number of wizards—minor and otherwise—dwindles in the city, Mona and Spindle decide to appeal directly to the Duchess. Breaking into the castle and convincing the Duchess something’s afoot turns out to be the easy part; rooting out the traitor within the Duchess’ own circle responsible for the conspiracy turns out to be a far more difficult, and deadly, thing. And far too quickly, Mona finds herself as the last wizard in the city—and the city’s longtime enemy is marching toward its gates. Only her and her magic can hold them off, but just how much good can her bread-whispering do?
The premise of a bread wizard is delightful all on its own, and gives me a great new excuse the next time my dough fails. But Kingfisher executes it brilliantly, spinning that killer concept with tropes adhered to and broken alike, as well as a clear and entertaining voice from Mona. There’s plenty of silliness in Mona trying to eavesdrop via a batch of scones, or in her familiar(s) being a sourdough starter named Bob and/or a hardy little gingerbread man perched upon her shoulder. But the rounding up of the “dangerous” magical folk, not to mention their systematic killing, is all too realistic and gives A Wizard’s Guide an edge even before the stakes facing Mona and her gift are fully revealed.
I’ve always liked when books make me think, even and perhaps especially as a kid when my worldview was so limited and malleable. Kingfisher does a great job of making Mona’s fear feel real, as well as her fear-boredom when being on the run gets old. A Wizard’s Guide has been written and rewritten for years, but that sense of being afraid yet also bored is a condition all too familiar as our plague year has stretched on and insisted on a reprise. Also well done is the buildup to the conclusion, in which far too much is placed on Mona’s young shoulders and only her immense creativity with her craft can give the city a chance at making it through the night.
A recurring theme within A Wizard’s Guide is the burden of heroism and the inaction of those with power. When Mona tells the Duchess of the corruption and helps root it out, she is called a hero. But she doesn’t want to be a hero, and she knows she wouldn’t have had to be the hero at all if those in charge had done their jobs like they were supposed to. The weight placed upon those called hero is only shown more clearly as Mona defends the city, and as she learns more about an outcast wizard whose talents earned her the same talent when she wasn’t much older than Mona. Heroes are born out of extreme situations, but extreme situations are born from malpractice or carelessness, A Wizard’s Guide tells us, and the acute grand act that constitutes heroism is often only a stopgap that requires deliberate action from the powers-that-be to make permanent progress. It’s deep stuff for a middle-grade/early YA book, but it’s also refreshing in a sea of teenagers saving the world with little-to-no inconvenient consequence—and there’s no love triangle to overshadow it here, either.
From start to finish, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is funny and rich, magical and all-too realistic. Consider me fully shamed for my earlier snobbery.