Bookshops & Bonedust
Travis Baldree

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Breaking news part I: I now know what rattkins are. This is very important. Not that it matters so terribly in the broader context of the story, but I need the head pictures.

Breaking news part II: I love this book even more than I love Legends & Lattes, and that’s really saying a lot. Legends & Lattes is for people who love coffee; Bookshops & Bonedust is for people who love books. I fall into the latter category, having never been a coffee person. I will make an exception only for mochas, which are literally hot chocolate with a tablespoon of coffee.

To back it up a bit, Bookshops & Bonedust is a belated prequel to Legends & Lattes, though I do recommend that you read the books in order of publication. Viv is not yet the middle-aged, level-headed coffee shop proprietor we know and love: she is twenty years younger, reckless and a little too ready to make a name for herself as a warrior. Her career gets off to a good start when she joins up with Rackam’s Ravens, a group of experienced questers led by the dwarf Rackam, but her ambitious plans take a nosedive when she gets herself a nasty leg wound while battling a horde of skeletal soldiers controlled by a powerful necromancer known as Varine the Pale. Despairing over Viv’s inability to follow basic directions (e.g., “Slow the fuck down”), Rackam and his crew drop her off in the sleepy seaside town of Murk, where theoretically nothing ever happens, and put her up at an inn called The Perch, promising to return for her in the fall. They also arrange her medical care with a sour-tempered elven healer named Highlark, though their relationship gets off to a bad start when Viv nearly throttles him in her injury-induced delirium.

Temporarily handicapped and at loose ends owing to her forced vacation, Viv goes out looking for absolutely anything to do and unintentionally antagonizes Iridia, the cobralike Gatewarden who enforces the peace in Murk. Despite this bad beginning, she soon stumbles across Thistleburr Booksellers, a rundown bookshop owned by a foul-mouthed rattkin named Fern and her pet gryphet Potroast (a cross between a pug and an owl). Viv has no particular love for books, but Fern has a talent for pairing readers with stories, and she quickly drags Viv into the world of reading with a series of extremely well-chosen books. Viv also develops a mutual crush on Maylee, the dwarf who owns the Sea-Song Bakery a few doors down from Thistleburr, and befriends Pitts, a taciturn orc with a gift for poetry; and, though their relationship gets off to a rocky start, she meets and eventually accepts Gallina, an ambitious young gnome who will become one of her dearest friends. Backed by her unlikely crew, Viv makes Thistleburr her summer project, and helps Fern restore the shop and entice new customers. Business is quietly helped by Fern’s habit of packing people off with their ideal books, and all in all it would be a busy, happy summer if it weren’t for the looming threat of Varine.

To be completely fair, Varine wouldn’t be an issue if one of her minions hadn’t robbed her and then defected to Murk; but, since he did, Viv and her friends start to find Varine’s sigil cropping up in the oddest of places as she relentlessly hunts for the things that were stolen from her. The defecting minion dies as quickly as he appeared, leaving no clues behind except a satchel packed with bones, a bottle of bonedust, and an extremely suspicious book, all of which are confiscated by Viv and Gallina before Iridia can find them. While the pile of bones turns out to be a travel-sized homunculus named Satchel, the book is a grimoire whose pages draw the possessor into a multitude of different locations. During her experiments, Viv learns too late that the grimoire carries a burglar alarm, which is automatically triggered when she pulls a superbly crafted greatsword named Blackblood from one of its storage pages. Her friends distrust the thing on instinct, but Viv is inexplicably drawn to it, and finds that she cannot bring herself to put it back. Meanwhile, Fern becomes attached to Satchel, who becomes an unofficial assistant, and manages to inveigle him into reading by introducing him to the works of local author Zelia Greatstrider.

Unfortunately, consequences do eventually catch up with them in the form of Varine. After laying siege to the town with her army of skeletons, Varine takes over Thistleburr and captures Viv’s friends, but is captured in her turn when Viv tricks her into opening the grimoire to a specific page, in which Satchel is waiting. With some timely help from Potroast, Satchel manages to pull Varine into the grimoire. There’s a hot second where it seems like she might escape, but Viv drives Blackblood through the heart of the grimoire, destroying it and putting a permanent end to Varine. In the aftermath of Varine’s death, the town gathers in its newly beloved bookshop to discuss the latest book published by Zelia Greatstrider, joined unexpectedly by Zelia herself. Satchel stays on as Fern’s permanent assistant, freed from Varine’s control, while Viv introduces Gallina to the disgruntled Ravens, who are faintly displeased to find Varine so neatly dispatched.

As Murk settles back into its routine, Viv says an emotional goodbye to her friends, then sets her feet on a completely different path. Twenty years later, now running Legends & Lattes and happily married to Tandri, Viv receives an unexpected letter from Fern. In it, Fern tells her that Satchel has left for greener pastures, and that she herself is planning to travel to Thune on an inspiration-finding sabbatical. Upon finishing Fern’s letter, Viv muses about the possibilities of the empty shop next door, which seems like as good a place as any for a new bookshop. The story ends with a poem written by Pitts, who developed his interest in poetry through the books he received from Fern in payment for his assistance with Thistleburr’s repairs.

I cannot overstate this. I LOVE THIS BOOK. It is rare that I love absolutely everything about a book, from the writing to the characters to the story to the setting, but this one ticked all the boxes. (A caveat on that writing: it’s not amazing. But it does its job without making me pull out my hair.) Screw our world, I want to live in Murk. While Legends & Lattes remains one of my favorite new reads, Bookshops & Bonedust is somehow even better, perhaps because it has the solid progression of time that L & L lacks. The timeline is clear, the plot well defined. The characters are wonderful, even when – as with Iridia and Zelia – they spend comparatively little time in the story. I’m sorry, but I actually really like Iridia, who starts out as an antagonist but gradually works her way to a grudging mutual respect with Viv. I also love Zelia; I think Viv’s and Fern’s visit to her house might be my favorite chapter, partly because Zelia completely breaks the elves-must-be-slender-as-willow-wands trope but also because, like any writer, she is at her best when she’s not actually writing. She seems like she might be a snoot and she kind of is, but she is also good to her readers, and she shows up, and I really respect that.

If there’s one tiny nitpicky thing that didn’t go over as smoothly as the rest of the book, it is Viv’s awkward romance with Maylee. I may be aromantic, but I honestly was kind of hoping for more – not steamy summer nights, but at least something more resembling the fling I was promised on the back cover. They spend more time dancing around each other and less time on romantic little getaways, which makes their relationship somewhat puzzling. Viv always has one foot out the door, knowing that she will be leaving with Rackam’s Ravens at the end of the summer, and this drives a semi-permanent wedge between them, which in turn prevents them from going for broke. Bruh, just go for broke. What on earth do you have to lose? Have that fling. Make mistakes. Get into stupid arguments about nothing. Just give me something more satisfying than this smoke and mirrors. They spend so little time directly romancing each other that it doesn’t feel like an actual courtship. Maylee deserves better. The good news is that this is a minor irritant, and it doesn’t affect my love for any of the characters.

More than the characters and the lovely cozy story, though, I just love the beautifully understated point that books bring the unlikeliest people together. Baldree doesn’t go out of his way to point this out; it is woven into every level of the story, so smoothly integrated that I initially took it for granted. It is books that save Viv from a dreadfully boring summer, that bring her closer to Fern and Maylee and Gallina, that plant the seed of an idea of a life beyond blood and mud and bullshit and back pain. It takes her a while to really recognize this idea for what it is, but that is also wonderful, because I love the idea that we are all works in progress. We don’t spring fully formed from our fathers’ heads. It takes time to become the people we want to be, and the journey is absolutely worth it. Moreover, it isn’t just Viv whose life is transformed: one of Iridia’s guards finds himself completely tongue-tied when he gets to meet Zelia, his idol, who not only notices him but invites him to talk with her about her book. Pitts finds an outlet in poetry, sour-faced Highlark reveals a softer side when he patronizes Thistleburr, and even the reading-averse Gallina begins to show some interest in stories, even if she isn’t particularly interested in reading the books for herself.

And, of course, I love, love, love the little L & L chapter at the end, which – after the adventure in Murk – feels like coming home. I love knowing that Viv and Tandri are married now, and that Viv is about to catch up with Fern. This is the reason I recommend reading the books out of sequence: B & B does slightly spoil the romantic payoff in L & L, easy though it is to predict. Mostly, though, B & B feels like it ought to be read after L & L, at least for the initial reading. I can’t really articulate why, except that the epilogue is more satisfying when you already have the full context of the coffee shop. This is by no means a hint that the series should be done now: if we don’t get at least 20 more books set in this world and following these characters, I am going to weep on Baldree’s doorstep until he writes some more. (No, I don’t actually know where he lives. I don’t see what that has to do with anything.) Even with the occasional blood and violence, Viv and her world are sweet, wholesome, and so, so kind, and both of her stories so far have left me full-hearted and hungry for more.