What's better than a magical mystery? A magical mystery featuring baked goods, you say? Sign me up! Baker Thief is a conventions-busting, inclusive, fun alternate world urban fantasy novel with mysteries and thrills and no small amount of underdogs taking on the corrupt underbelly of corporations.
It is, in short, a good read.
Adèle is a detective recently relocated and transferred to a new unit. Shortly after moving in, a masked, purple-haired thief named Claire breaks into Adèle’s new place, stealing an exocore. These are like magical batteries, and Claire believes there is something wrong with them. Claire is also Claude, the owner of a bakery Adèle has begun to frequent—but, of course, in the requisite dramatic irony, Adèle doesn’t know that. Claire’s genderfluidity isn’t out in public yet. As the mystery of the exocores mounts and more witches go missing, Adèle and Claire begin to develop feelings for each other. But when one is demisexual and the other is aromantic, what exactly do you call that kind of relationship?
Although this book certainly has some dark motifs to it—witches being persecuted and subject to science experiments, violence and murder, etc., there is a mirthfulness to Claudie Arsenault’s writing that is so enjoyably evident here. Baker Thief features little touches to the narration that let you immerse yourself in this world and its characters, whether it’s Claude discussing how relaxing he finds baking bread or Adèle feeling bolstered by her new captain’s sardonic responses to twists of fate. From chapter titles in French to wordplay and sarcastic remarks, there’s enough levity and humour here to keep the book feeling light despite the serious, high stakes of the plot. That’s not an easy tight rope to walk!
Elements of the mystery are going to be familiar to regular fantasy readers. Arsenault reaches deep into some rich fantasy tropes when it comes to the interactions between magic users and the environment. Nevertheless, she deploys these tropes with creativity and accuracy such that they land in fresh and interesting ways. She also understands pacing and scene/sequel construction, so even though I wasn’t always surprised by the turn of events, my brain was kept quite satisfied. Like a freshly-baked croissant, the plot makes your mouth water because of this familiarity rather than in spite of it.
My main critique of the book, and its plot, would be the handling of the climax and falling action. Don’t get me wrong: Arsenault sets up quite a confrontation between the bad guys and our ragtag band of intrepid heroes. Nevertheless, there is a smoothness to it that doesn’t pay off the way I’d like. I hope that, in future books, as the series develops and we learn more about the exocores and the persecution of witches, Adèle and Claire are faced with some more difficult choices in their quest to right these wrongs.
Baker Thief also strives to be inclusive and diversely representative in a very positive way. As an aromantic/asexual and trans person, it’s nice to see a society depicted where characters like me exist and our queerness is not persecuted. There is persecution and injustice in this society, but it’s directed at witches. Even the bad guys don’t misgender people in this world. Yes, Claire is still reluctant to reveal her “secret identity” to the world—but that’s wrapped up in the complications of her nightly activities. Moreover, I think Arsenault has it right that a world with less persecution of LGBTQ+ people doesn’t mean everyone is going to be 100% out right away. Questioning is still often a very personal and private thing!
There’s also fat rep, and some disability rep (both mental health and at least one character with a prosthetic limb).
All in all, I loved the world of Baker Thief. I loved that I could almost smell the food, and that the “romance” between the two protagonists was not, in fact, a romance. Let’s have more of that, shall we?