Completed 7/3/2023, Reviewed 7/3/2023
I was first introduced to T. Kingfisher under her real name, Ursula Vernon. She wrote the brilliant web-comic Digger, which won the Mythopoeic Award when it was published in its omnibus edition. This book is almost as good. It’s a YA novel that’s pretty dark for the subgenre, but highly entertaining. It’s well-written, fast-paced, and has a good lesson or two in it. It’s very timely in its depiction of a group of people who are marginalized, ostracized, and hunted down. But it’s one of these people who ends up saving the day. It won several awards including the 2020 Andrew Norton Award and the 2021 Locus Young Adult Award.
Mona is a fourteen-year-old baker’s assistant to her aunt. She is also a magicker, meaning she does a little magic. Specifically, she can do amazing things with dough. One morning when she opens the bakery, she finds the body of another teen girl. She’s accused of being the murderer by the chancellor, Lord Oberon. Although she is acquitted by the Duchess herself and her wizard head of the army, Mona finds herself under continuous suspicion. Next thing she knows, she’s being attacked by the same assassin. Events twist and turn and soon she is called upon to help the Duchess defend the city from attack by the terrible, cannibalistic Carex people.
They joy of this book is in the details. Mona can make gingerbread men dance. She has a sentient sourdough starter dough named Bob. She can tell bread to become fresh or very, very stale. All these little tricks are important for later when it comes time to defend the city.
Of course, there is also the amazing character Mona. She’s a very realistic fourteen-year-old. The cries easily, she’s awkward, self-doubting, and caught in that rough age between childhood and adulthood. She eschews the title of hero, but she happens to do the right things at the right time, even though she feels like they were last resorts and nothing special. Kingfisher has several great passages about what it means to be a hero, and particularly, a reluctant one. And that is what Mona is.
There is a whole case of wonderful secondary characters, including Spindle, the street urchin whose sister was the victim Mona came upon. He’s very ten-years-old, street-smart, and impulsive. The Duchess is interesting as a not yet impotent ruler. I liked her even though her willingness to believe Mona so quickly was a little hard to believe. Lord Oberon and the dangerous Spring Green Man are deliciously evil. Even the small characters like the castle’s cook and her kitchen maid, several of the Duchess’ guard, and the customers of the bakery had life breathed into them despite having small roles. I owe all this to Kingfisher’s excellent writing. She had very believable dialogue between the Mona and these characters. Even the non-speaking gingerbread man familiar perched upon Mona’s shoulder was easily believable.
I give this book four out of five stars. It’s highly entertaining and fun. There are a lot of battle scenes near the end as the siege of the city by the Carex is long and drawn out. It is not fun, as war should not be, but how Kingfisher works Mona’s magic into the battle is awesome. And of course, there are several good discussions about war and evil and again, what being a hero really means. I’ve now read Kingfisher’s brilliant comic, her awesome YA, next I want to read her adult novels.