Aleksandra (Ola) Hill is a Polish-Canadian writer and the founder and publisher of khōréō, a Hugo-nominated and IGNYTE-winning magazine of speculative fiction by immigrant and diaspora writers. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Analog Magazine, LeVar Burton Reads, Writer’s Digest, and others. Learn more at www.aleksandrahill.com
TL;DR: Legends & Lattes and its standalone prequel, Bookshops & Bonedust, live up to their promise of being novels of “high fantasy and low stakes.” These books are the literary equivalent of a warm hug: simple (but never trite) stories of individuals triumphing over the mundane and heroic that inspire the reader towards kindness at every turn.
I read Legends & Lattes in about two sittings a couple of weeks before it came out in November 2022—and then, well… life happened. We got a puppy; my first MFA thesis of the academic year was due two weeks after that; and then I was overwhelmed with work, gearing up for my second thesis of the academic year, and trying to handle the landshark that had taken up residence in our once-peaceful one-bedroom apartment.
I thought of Legends & Lattes and the review I’d been meant to write for it every week since—not just out of the haunting of guilt that I’d still not gotten to it, but also out of how applicable it was. I found myself recommending it to anyone who mentioned that they’d been having a tough time—and, in the “post-COVID” years where it doesn’t ever truly feel like the pandemic is over and during which many other troubles have surfaced… well, that was pretty often.
It’s with incredible pleasure that I learned I had the chance to review the second book set in this world—which came out just today, November 7, 2023.
Because this review will cover two books, it’s divided into two sections: one for those who have not yet entered the world of Legends and Lattes, and one for those who want to know a bit more about Bookshops and Bonedust in particular. However, these are both standalone books, and you can start with whichever one tickles your fancy more.
Part 1: Legends and Lattes
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree begins at the end. An orc by the name of Viv has just beaten what amounts to the Big Bad End Guy (BBEG) of her own adventure. And so… she decides to settle down and open a café in a city named Thune, where no one has heard of coffee (yet). She has a nest egg of gold that she’s saved up in her years of adventuring and a strong work ethic to make her dream a reality. It’s a far cry from her previous life, and a very different path than many of “her kind” take, as so many folks point out to her—but she’s determined to leave that past behind. What follows is the story of how the coffee shop comes into being.
This is not a nail-biter of a book: the reader never truly worries that she will end up homeless and destitute—the stakes are never quite that high. Rather, the challenge is whether she will give up on her dream and whether she is willing to continue trusting herself and the path that she has chosen and, more importantly, whether she is willing to ask for help—or, more critically, accept when others offer the help she so willingly and unquestioningly gives to strangers.
It is a book that asks whether a person can truly change, and whether they can find happiness in that change; it also understands that being entirely self-reliant can be the same thing as being selfish, and that trust and faith in others can be more terrifying than fighting monsters. Perhaps most importantly: this is a book that made me want to be kinder and more open to those around me. I live in New York City, where often, the biggest kindness you can give others is space and privacy to live their lives—and yet, while reading this book, I found myself longing to connect more closely to the neighbourhood I’d lived in for the past seven (now eight!) years. Thanks to our now year-old puppy, Virgil (pictured right), and his exuberant friendliness and insatiable curiosity about the world, we’ve been able to make our neighborhood more of a home than ever. I’d like to think Viv would adore his goofy, chaotic self.
While I absolutely loved this book (as did many others—it was nominated for multiple awards and Baldree won the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2023), there are certain readers who will likely not enjoy it. In particular: if you are looking for higher stakes and extensive moments of tension—this book is not for you. Most challenges are vanquished almost as soon as they appear, which can give the feeling of a lot of stuff happening without much consequence (this is magically explained later in the novel, but that will not be satisfying for some, I presume!). The evolution of Viv’s café is also a big formulaic—from one type of coffee to two, from no pastries to one pastry to more, from tiny kitchen to large kitchen. If you’re looking for a book that goes into a realistic scenario of growing a food services business—this also probably isn’t for you (but I do highly recommend Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential to scratch that particular itch!).
However, this is the perfect book for you if you: are looking for comfort and coziness, want a queer, low-drama romance, and/or delight in descriptions of food. I recommend it most for those who feel deeply lonely: it’s the type of book that makes you want to reach out to those around you, and that may inspire you to ask for—and allow yourself to receive—the help that you need.
Part 2: Bookshops and Bonedust
Bookshops & Bonedust is Baldree’s sophomore novel. This one starts at the beginning: we see Viv, the retired adventurer and main character of Legends & Lattes, on her very first campaign with the mercenary group Rackam's Ravens. It’s almost her last, too: she’s injured by the henchman of the necromancer Varine and just barely survives. But survive she does—only for Rackam and company to leave her in the seaside town of Murk to recuperate. Stuck in a place that takes all of about ten minutes to see (according to the innkeeper) and still healing from a thigh wound that requires dreadful amounts of bedrest, Viv’s worried that she might go crazy from boredom before Rackam comes to fetch her on their way back from hunting Varine—if they come back for her at all.
But while in Murk, Viv builds a community through her small acts of kindness. She befriends Fern, a rattakin who inherited her father’s slowly dying bookshop, her gryphet Potroas (for whom I would die)t, and a taciturn orc carpenter named Pitts. She also finds something more than friendship with Maylee, the local baker and a former adventurer herself. Readers of Legends & Lattes may also remember the name of Gallina, who appears in Bookshops & Bonedust as a young and somewhat annoying gnome desperate to be taken seriously enough to join a mercenary group.
This book is also a great option for those who found Legends & Lattes a little bit too low-stakes but are on the lookout for cozy fantasy. It’s still definitely not a book that will set your heart racing at every turn of the page, but it does manage to keep a low level of concern throughout for what Varine the necromancer is up to, and has a greater antagonist arc than L&L managed. I appreciated how everything came together, both in the more mundane aspects of the plot as well as in the larger “BBEG” sense of the story. (With that being said, if you’re looking for a realistic Bookstore Simulator™, this isn’t the book for you—no mentions of consignment or returnability to be found here!)
Ultimately, this book is about much more than adventure and magic. At its core, it’s about what it means to connect with others and to trust them; it also thrums with Baldree’s love for stories. Fern teaches Viv to love reading; she does so not with force or snobbery, but by trying to understand who Viv is and what will make her, not Fern, and not anyone else, happiest. Bookshops and Bonedust also considers the price of friendship and what it means to stay in a place temporarily, including what we owe those who care for us when we’re just passing through their lives. It’s a deeply touching book, and, in the end, encourages the reader to take chances and connect with the world around them, just like Legends & Lattes did.
Also like Legends & Lattes, this is a book for those who want something cozy and comforting; who love books about books; who are looking for quiet queer romance; and—of course—who want to learn more about Viv, the wonderful orc of the first installment of this series.