Really, how can any baker resist a title like that, along with the lure of an enthusiastic but somewhat unreliable sourdough starter named Bob? But what at first seems to be a murder mystery when a young baker named Mona finds a body in the bakery morphs fairly quickly into a coming-of-age story, in the setting of a politically unstable landscape.
“You’re making their lives better, just a little tiny bit. It is nearly impossible to be sad when eating a blueberry muffin. I’m pretty sure that’s a scientific fact.”
There were two problems here, both of which will vary tremendously depending on the reader. One, the lead is a very timid sort. While she does grow into her magic, I would hesitate to say she grows significantly into her personhood power. While that is entirely alright, the mileage one gets out of this may vary. She’s a young, rule-follower, trusting sort of young person, and that’s fine. Her emotional breakdowns are in line with this persona, as are her worries. And I kind of applaud Kingfisher for trying to tell a story about someone who doesn’t want to be a hero, and who doesn’t get powered-up and stomp all over the story. But. But not my favorite kind of lead character. I might have liked her better if I was ten.
The second challenge–perhaps like much in baking–was one of scale. Had Kingfisher been content to keep it a smaller story like in Minor Mage, it would have worked better for me. But I found myself puzzled, supremely, by dual ideas (spoilery) of a large enough city that children can escape multiple guards on a canal and through smugglers’ pathways, but that same young baker can make seven golems and twenty gingerbread men can hold off an advancing army in a way that a populace can’t. Like, how effing incompetent is this city and the advancing army?
That said, there’s plenty to enjoy here. The baking is probably the most fun. Bob the sourdough starter is hilarious and steals every scene (and that ranks right up there with things I never thought I’d say about a book, along with spiders are cool). I kept waiting for the little gingerbread man to run down the road shouting, “you can’t catch me,” but that could be because I just read The Big Over Easy.
“In Bob’s case, it was easy. I stuck both hands into the soup tureen and tried to convince him that what the world needed was a whole lot more Bob. As this coincided with what Bob himself had always believed”
It’s a decent Kingfisher, which means the characterization feels solid. There’s a few standard characters rolled in (pushy, loving aunt, a thief) as well as some intriguing ones (the uncle, the horse witch). It’s ethics and world-building are probably geared a little simply compared to some of her other works, which may be why it feels a little younger. Still, it’s a Kingfisher, and the writing is occasionally quite perfect.
“Nobody said anything to me, and they didn’t exactly stare, but they knew I was there, and I knew that they knew, and they knew that I knew that they knew, all in a creepy, crackling tangle of mutual awareness.”
On the scale of Kingfisher, I’d say Nine Goblins < Defensive Baking < Minor Mage < The Tomato Thief.