Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Published by Argyll Productions on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
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…
I fully admit that I bought this one for the title. Not that the stabbity-stabbity gingerbread man on the cover isn’t adorable, but it was definitely the title that got me. And I’m so very glad that it did. I also wondered whether this was really YA or whether it was one of those cases where something got called YA because it was fantasy. That doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but it definitely does still happen.
I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is even better than that, it’s a YA that can be read and very much enjoyed by adults. I not only laughed out loud at many points, but ended up reading bits to my husband who needed to know what I was cackling about so much.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking reminds me of three really different things; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Harry Potter, and Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker. And those three things really shouldn’t go together. But they do here.
They definitely do.
It felt like Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City because to a certain extent Mona and Orhan are in the same position. Their city has been betrayed from within – although not for the same reasons. Both of them are woefully underqualified for the role of city savior. Orhan because he’s a despised non-native of the city and Mona because she’s a despised – or at least feared – magic user. And she’s only 14.
Mona’s wry and often disgusted commentary on what’s happening around her and just how far the situation has been left to go awry reads like both Sixteen Ways and the Discworld. Mona sees that things are going wrong, and comments about it to herself. A lot. There may be a certain amount of gallows in her humor, but then the situation does require it.
Where Harry Potter comes in, of course, is that Mona is just 14 and she’s expected to save the city. Which is ridiculous and insane and she’s very aware of the fact that there are lots of adults who weren’t adulting very well at all. It’s up to her and it just plain shouldn’t be. But it still is. Because even if she CAN manage to get better adults it’s not going to happen in time to save the city. So it’s all up to her, no matter how much she downright KNOWS that she is in over her head.
Mona’s understanding that the adults who should have figured this out were collectively asleep at the switch and that saving the city shouldn’t be up to her but is anyway is something that Harry Potter fanfiction handles better than the original stories. The situation shouldn’t have been allowed to get so far off the rails that a 14-year-old is not just their best but their only hope. After all, when Leia talks about Obi-Wan being her “only hope” at least her expectations are fixed on a grown up.
That the hope Mona manages to provide involves some very bad gingerbread men, a few very large bread golems and a whole lot of carnivorous sourdough starter is what makes the story so much fun. Which it very definitely is.
But it never sugarcoats the fact that the situation is beyond dire – and that war is very definitely hell. And that sometimes all it takes is just one horse rider of the apocalypse to bring that fact home.
Escape Rating A+: There is a LOT going on in this story. That’s what makes it so damn good.
The obvious is the whole 14-year-old saves the city thing that makes it YA. Mona is young. She’s still, to some extent, figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up, although her magic has driven her further down that path than most. But she’s also at an age where she’s unsure of herself and her future in so many different ways. She sees herself as young, and small, and weak. She sees her magic as not powerful at all or even all that useful. It’s handy in her aunt’s bakery, where she works, but it’s not otherwise big or showy. And neither, honestly, is she.
Her talent is in convincing dough that it wants to do what SHE wants it to do, so it rises properly and it doesn’t burn. And she can make gingerbread men dance – even if she can’t control what kind of dance they do. Mona’s power has definite limits that she has to work within to make it work at all.
Mona is not a person that anyone would expect to be the city’s savior, least of all Mona herself. But when her life gets knocked off its tracks with her discovery of a dead body in her aunt’s bakery, her path goes straight into the doings of the high and mighty. A position that Mona herself certainly never expected to be in.
But then, she didn’t expect to find herself shimmying up the shaft of the duchess’ crapper in order to get someone more suitable on the path of fixing the mess. And that’s the point at which she discovers that EVERYONE has been hoping that someone else would fix the mess.
And doesn’t that sound all too familiar?
As does the way that someone has been using the powers of their office, along with a whole lot of propaganda and a dab hand at ginning up the crowd and pointing it at a convenient bogeyman. Which leads us right back to Harry Potter and the whole “pureblood supremacy” movement. Or real life and any number of groups who can be used to focus attention away from whatever an administration doesn’t want people to look at.
As I said, this is a story that operates on multiple levels, and all of them are excellent. If you are on the lookout for an excellent fantasy that will make you laugh AND make you think, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking has the perfect recipe.