Legends & Lattes
Travis Baldree

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

My first three thoughts:

  1. This book made me want coffee. I do not drink coffee. This book still made me want it.
  2. This book also low-key made me want a cat, but, well, I’ve taken care of that.
  3. If I ever go crazy, quit my job, and give up on my utterly unsustainable dream of opening a bookshop and open a coffee shop instead, this book will be to blame. (First problem: how does one make coffee?)

Legends & Lattes is a super adorable story about a coffee shop where it always smells like cinnamon rolls and everyone is welcome (except Fennus, because fuck that guy). The shop is the brainchild of Viv, an orc who gets fed up with blood, mud, bullshit, and back pain. After stumbling across a gnome-run coffee shop and discovering coffee for the first time, she goes on one final quest with her party – Gallina the gnome, Taivus the stone-fey, Roon the dwarf, and Fennus the snooty elf – to slay a many-eyed toothy creature called a Scalvert Queen. Upon the success of their mission, Viv retrieves the jewel-like Scalvert’s Stone from the Queen’s skull and takes it as her only compensation, eschewing the fabulous treasure hoarded by the newly deceased Queen. She then abandons her party without so much as a how-d’you-do and makes her way to the bustling city of Thune, Stone in hand, and buys a rundown stable on a street that – according to the local ley lines – is supposed to be prosperous. With nothing more than a strong vision and an iron will, she hangs up her trusty sword Blackblood and sets out to establish herself as Thune’s first coffeemaker. As an added piece of insurance, she hides the Scalvert’s Stone under a loose floor stone in the hopes that it will bring her her heart’s desire, as it is reputed to do. Her new business gets off on the right foot when she connects with Calamity (“Cal”), a hob who becomes her dedicated contractor, and Tandri, a succubus who becomes her first barista/sign artist, and that’s the start of it all, really.

The efficacy of the Scalvert Stone remains ambiguous as Viv begins to build her business from the ground up, but a series of fortunate events – coupled with Viv’s willingness to invite others to develop their talents within the context of the coffee shop – gets the ball rolling. At Cal’s suggestion, Viv names the shop Legends & Lattes, and it becomes a runaway hit. (It’s not exactly overnight, but some free samples help ease the path to a city full of customers who have never heard of coffee.) Tandri becomes more of a business partner than an assistant, frequently suggesting innovations and improvements to Viv’s business model, while Cal helps develop the layout of the shop. Viv also hires Thimble, a nearly nonverbal rattkin with a talent for baking, and he introduces the shop’s clientele to cinnamon rolls, biscotti, and chocolate croissants, all of which he seemingly invents; and, after a rough start, she encourages a young musician named Pendry to play his music in her shop. She even informally adopts a giant dire-cat, which she and Tandri name Amity. Through it all, Viv and Tandri begin to fall cautiously in love, though their budding relationship is stymied by their mutual awkwardness. Still, it is a most agreeable time, despite Viv’s paranoia over the secrecy of the Stone.

At first Viv’s biggest trouble seems to be the Madrigal, the head of a mafia-like organization whose hired thugs regularly collect tribute payments from the local businesses. Though her former crew suggests all-out war, Viv chooses to negotiate, and in so doing learns that the Madrigal is an elderly lady who can be subdued with baked goods. After a very civilized conversation, Viv agrees to pay her tribute in cinnamon rolls, leaving everyone entirely satisfied. Far more troubling is a visit from Fennus, who knows what the Stone is supposed to do and is determined to claim it for himself. His campaign succeeds when he sets a magical fire that destroys the shop, and he flees with the Stone, leaving Viv in the ashes. Viv briefly loses all hope, but regains it when the people whose lives she has touched – including the Madrigal and her minions – come together to help rebuild their coffee shop. With the remains of Blackblood mounted on the new shop sign, Legends & Lattes holds a grand reopening, and the community reseals around it. When all is said and done, Viv gives partial ownership of the shop to Tandri, Cal, and Thimble, then shyly invites Tandri to live with her in the remodeled apartment space above the store. Tandri accepts, and they become lovers.

Meanwhile, the increasingly-less-proud new owner of the Scalvert Stone learns to his severe irritation that the Stone does not work exactly the way its reputation suggests. His doubts are augmented by the success of Viv’s Stoneless reopening, and he is just beginning to wonder if the Stone does anything at all when the Madrigal’s men catch up with him. He escapes them easily enough but is caught on the rooftops of Thune by Amity, who ambushes and presumably kills him. In a short story at the end of the book, Viv and her party – you know, when Fennus was still alive – go through a difficult quest, which ends with Viv stumbling into the gnome-owned coffee shop that will become the inspiration for Legends & Lattes.

This is the best fall read I’ve ever encountered, written by someone who very clearly loves coffee. It is sweet and cozy and filled with baked goods, and I really can’t ask for anything else. Viv is such a lovable heroine, tough and kind and strong-willed and goofy and soft-hearted. I love the community she builds, even if that isn’t necessarily her goal. Even if I’m still cursing Fennus’s name to the winds for burning down that beautiful coffee shop, I am glad that Viv loses the Scalvert Stone, which starts as a crutch and later becomes a weight around her neck. I am so glad that she gets the opportunity to realize that she has built her own fortune, and that her friends genuinely love her for who she is. It has nothing to do with the Stone. As much as she claims that she has done terrible things in the past (and I believe her), I still think she is a fundamentally good-hearted, inclusive person. It is her kindness that draws others to her: even when faced with the first electric guitar solo ever heard in Thune, which goes rather badly, she invites the disheartened musician to try again, and later hires him as a regular performer. She provides a safe space for others to explore their passions and doesn’t ask them too many questions, and she pays them what seems to be more than a living wage. I especially love the resolution of her conflict with the Madrigal, and I am glad that she never resorts to the kind of violence she is trying to leave behind. I also love Tandri and Cal, but I think my absolute favorite might have to be little Thimble, who stole my heart the moment he brought in a cinnamon roll as his resume and asked Viv if free coffee could be part of his benefits package. He is so sweet, and possibly the best part of the book is seeing how much he thrives in the workplace Viv creates.

Now: the story and the characters and the vibes are sheer perfection, but the writing tends to be only okay, and the book as a whole is a little more episodic than I would have liked. While there is one cohesive story, some of the chapters shuffle through disconnected scenes at a rapid pace, and it’s faintly dissatisfying. Additionally, Baldree seems to either assume a certain level of DnD knowledge, or – worse – to assume that the in-universe vocabulary speaks for itself, the way Gregory Maguire does. I don’t even know if half the vocabulary Baldree threw at me is actually from DnD, or if it’s his own invention. No, I don’t technically need to know what a scalvert is, the same way I don’t need to know what a skark is. But it is disorienting to read about rattkins without actually knowing if they’re humans who have ratlike features, or if they’re bipedal rats who have learned human speech. For what it’s worth, I’m really hoping for the latter, because Thimble triggered my Ratatouille-loving brain and I can’t get the image of a baker rat out of my head. Either way, the book skips over some details that would have been nice to have in favor of getting to the part that Baldree actually wanted to write, and I wish we had spent some more time getting to know the world as a whole, rather than just this one corner of Thune.

As for the short story at the end: I didn’t really need it, and it didn’t do anything for me until the end, when the coffee is finally introduced. The thing is, I really just wanted a book about a coffee shop, and clearly the main story delivered. The bit at the end, with the neverending search for Bodkin, is confusing, boring, and way too long. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t in a headspace to read another 33 pages. Maybe I was mind-fogged from the wonderful story about the coffee shop, and therefore unreceptive to anything that veered away from the coffee shop. Maybe I was tired. I am ready to believe that I wasn’t paying proper attention to the Bodkin story, because I spent most of that time wondering when it was going to end. All the same, I kind of wish I had either skipped it or left it for another day, because it doesn’t add anything. Really I was hoping the story would be a winter holiday special, which brought a special kind of disappointment when I realized that it wasn’t. (But also, can we please have a winter holiday special? In the coffee shop this time?)

Ultimately, the book still got five stars because my one criterion in awarding five stars is a very simple question: Will I try to force my friends to read it? The answer in this case is a solid yes. The writing doesn’t bother me unduly, and it really is such a lovely story about a career change, a found family, and a cozy coffee shop that becomes the backbone of a new community. I love this book so much that I am now in possession of the newly released Bookshops & Bonedust, and I really hope it won’t be the same experience as the Bodkin story, because the coffee shop’s not in it. Still, I’m optimistic, if only because I want more of Viv. In all honesty, I would love for Legends & Lattes to be the first in a super cozy 20-book series. I’m not sure where the story can go from here, but this world has so much potential. I really hope Baldree will keep it going.