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A Warm, Well-Baked Treat: Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree


A Warm, Well-Baked Treat: Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree

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A Warm, Well-Baked Treat: Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree


Published on December 19, 2023


My first forays into cozy science fiction and fantasy left me thinking I wasn’t a fan of the genre. I was disappointed by this. I wanted an SFF addition to the romance novels and small town mysteries in which life is better than it should be and the ending feels familiar in its rightness. Like many readers, I sometimes need a book to shake my hand and promise that nobody I care about in its pages will die. Yet the cozy SFF I tried was either too self-serious or too slow for me.

Then came Legends & Lattes. It sounds like a goofy fanfiction challenge: Write about an orc who quits battling and opens a coffee shop. Yet thanks to Baldree’s tenderness for his characters and unabashed optimism (plus a neatly constructed magical device justifying his cast of kind and talented people), I adored it. My one quibble was that Americanos taste so much worse than a simple shot of espresso, and that’s the first drink Viv serves her employee-business partner.

Bookshops & Bonedust is even more of a delight than its predecessor/sequel. Taking place two decades before Legends & Lattes, Baldree’s second book is a meaty slice of Viv’s backstory, so fully realized that it can be read as a standalone. Certainly, there are references that will be more fun for a fan of Legends, namely the origin of the sword Blackblood and a contentious early relationship with the gnome Gallina, but someone who’d never heard of Travis Baldree would still enjoy this adventure.

On her first big gig with Rackham’s Ravens, a respected mercenary crew, Viv goes too hard too fast and too alone, and gets stabbed in the leg. Before she passes out, Rackham himself tells her he’s sending her to the nearest safe haven to recover, promising to pick her up once his troop has finished their mission. This is how Viv finds herself trapped in the sleepy seaside town of Thune, with a bum leg and nothing to do. This does not suit her sense of self, which will be recognizable to anyone who has built an identity around a less-than-stable career. (Artists, hello!) So, Viv heads out to explore. She ends up befriending the local bookstore owner, rattkin Fern, who needs a hand with her moldering business, and learns to love reading in the process. The genius town baker, a dwarf named Maylee, takes a shine to Viv, resulting in their quiet summer romance. Viv disobeys her doctor regularly, establishes a grudging detente with the local Serpenti Gatewarden, and finds an unexpected friend in untethered fighter Gallina.There’s a poetry-reading and spouting construction worker, a reclusive author, and a necromancer that eludes Rackham’s Ravens and comes for Viv instead. Why does Varine the Pale take an interest in this injured orc? A book, of course! A book stolen from the necromancer winds up in Viv’s hands, accompanied by a mysterious skeletal servant. Without giving too much away, the ending is as neat and as satisfying as if the story were a ballad or a fairytale.

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Bookshops & Bonedust
Bookshops & Bonedust

Bookshops & Bonedust

Taken on its own terms, Bookshops & Bonedust excels at what it sets out to be. It doesn’t surprise me that Baldree admits in an afterword that he didn’t intend to write this book as his second offering; the organic quality of the story transmits itself through the text. The balances that Baldree strikes seem a kind of intuitive magic. He tells his story with great seriousness from the perspective of his characters, honoring them as struggling people while maintaining a light touch. The mastery and danger of the necromancer is present, but never skews Epic like so many Dungeons & Dragons-adjacent universes. The novel’s humor is tongue-in-cheek in places but never declares itself, offering readers the gift of laughing at characters who don’t know they’re being funny. Baldree even achieves a cutesy animal character that isn’t annoying: Fern’s pet gryphet Potroast. The creature is a combination of an angry owl and a short stocky dog, and gets up to all kinds of hijinks. If Potroast were a Disney sidekick, he’d probably have given me a toothache—but instead, he’s genuinely funny and expressive.

As the title implies, Bookshops & Bonedust is not only a light-hearted adventure but also an ode to independent bookstores and their staff. Fern represents every bookseller who brims with brilliant book recommendations and love for the written word. Baldree sets himself the authorial challenge of including snippets from many purportedly excellent imaginary novels, aiming to show how every book scratches a different itch. Though the stylistic similarity and general melodrama of these excerpts are the one weak point in this otherwise tight novel, their presence allows for a touching meditation on reading and how it changes us. The narrative explores how authors may not always understand everything they’ve created, and that doesn’t make the meanings readers find for themselves any less valid—the opposite, in fact. As Viv explains to Fern near the end,

“Maybe that’s what the story says in the words that got put down, but if you could read past the end? The words that didn’t get written? Maybe it ends up being something else altogether.”

Fern sums up Viv’s reflection with a phrase appropriate for a prequel: “the story past the story.”

Although I stand by Bookshops & Bonedust’s integrity on its own, I do think it benefits from reading the story past the one it holds. Read as a pair (in any order), Baldree’s two novels gain depth, offering a more powerful character arc for Viv. It’s poignant to see a time when her mercenary life was her identity, and get to know the inner fighter that prompts her to refuse to pay the local extortionist in Legends & Lattes. Seeing Viv’s early life elevates her later commitment to leaving violence behind, revealing it as the transformation of a lifetime. If Baldree’s breakout hit was the story of Viv finding her people, then Bookshops & Bonedust is the story of Viv becoming her own person. Engrossing, meaningful, and fluffy all at once, it is a charming afternoon read—perhaps alongside a cup of coffee.

Bookshops & Bonedust is published by Tor Books.
Read an excerpt.

Maura Krause is a writer and Barrymore-nominated theatrical director, currently pursuing their MFA in Writing at California College for the Arts.

About the Author

Maura Krause


Maura Krause is a writer and Barrymore-nominated theatrical director. They have an MFA from California College for the Arts and currently live in central Maine.
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