Nathan’s review of Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree
Prequels are hard.
Most exist for no reason other than the need to build out a franchise or to expand upon IP with a built in money. Because of this, most prequels come across as creatively cynical; they don’t exist genuinely but instead because they will print money.
Prequels are also hard because they require authors to work within the confines of what readers already know will happen. Nothing “suprising” can happen because the twists must work within the rules, worldbuilding, plots, and character arcs that have already been established in the previously published books. This means that, at worst, prequels are made inert by their ability to do anything interesting, and at worse they invalidate the meaningful gains made in the other books.
Bookshops and Bonedusts fell somwhere in the middle of these two extremes for me. Unforunately, this left the book a bit of a dissapointment for me. It was by no means a complete failure, but it failed to live up to the cozy perfection that Legends and Lattes offered up.
Bookshops and Bonedusts follows Viv (the main character from Legends and Lattes) as she is wounded in a battle. As she recovers, she settles into a village and meets a whole cast of quirky characters, including a ratkin that owns a cozy (yet failing) bookshop and a dwarf who runs a successful bakery. Viv works to help save the bookstore and find a bit of romance all while trying to defeat an evil necromancer who is chasing after her.
At its best, Bookshops and Bonedusts attempts to elicit all of the same emotions from the reader at Legends and Lattes. There is a colorful cast of characters living in the same village, slowly building a cozy business, and a slightly darker threat pervading the book to give it a bit of plot momentum and excitement. If what you are genuinely looking for is just those cozy vibes, Bookshops and Bonedust has got you covered. Except for a sequence at the end, it is a gently paced book that feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket.
But you know when someone gives you a hug and you can tell their heart is not in it? You know how you want that warming endorphin fit from having someone wrap their arms around you and it doesn’t quite “hit”? That was my feeling while both immersed in and walking away from Bookshops and Bonedusts. Despite hitting all of the same beats as Legends and Lattes, there was just something missing from this book. There was a hollowness and emptiness; once you scraped away the cozy fantasy tropes, there wasn’t much left over. I found myself reading through the book looking for that cozy endorphine it and not finding it. I think that the hollowness has emerged through the book’s existence as a prequel – and a prequel that doesn’t necessarily have a purpose for existing.
The main conceit of Bookshops and Bonedusts is that it gives readers backgrounds on how Viv came to the realization that there is more to life than being a member of a violence band of warriors. Viv comes to appreciate the quieter, gentler, and cozier parts of life. As the book begins, Viv is anxious to get back to her crew, despite the fact that she can barely stand on her marred leg. As the book progresses, she finds that we can fill our lives with genuine relationships, that human connection and making people content (rather than dead) can actually be exciting and meaningful.
I just don’t think this was a story that needed to be told.
As readers we already KNEW all of this. Legends and Lattes had already laid that foundation, and I’m not sure that this was an origin story that needed to be told. I think that hollowness I was feeling was coming about from the very fact that this was a story without a purpose. This is an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle, and doesn’t quite reach the heights of Legends and Lattes. Travis Baldree is obviously a very talented writer, but I cannot help but wonder if his strengths as a storyteller would have been better served in a completely new world, or a story set in the world of Legends and Lattes that didn’t necessarily center Viv. Viv’s story arc in Legends and Lattes was so beautiful and perfectly constructed that giving us MORE just felt unneeded. This was especially true whenever Bookshops and Bonedusts started to give Viv character development that she allgedly first got in Legends and Lattes; if she had this journey in this earlier time period, then why, as the reader, do I care about her development later?
This all also leads to a bit of a tonal disjuncture in the book. In the last act Viv has to confront the evil necromancer that is chasing her (where the “bonedust” in the title comes from!). As I briefly mentioned earlier, this has the same purpose/function that the cartel had in Legends and Lattes; it gives the book a bit of higher stakes. It really worked in Legends and Lattes because it sprinkled just a bit of stakes onto all of the coffee shop building, adding some tension to a book (and genre) that exists mainly to avoid it. The necromancy storyline is much less successful here. The magic and history between Viv and the necromancer is not given enough space to fully flesh it out, and this conflict is MUCH darker than what we had in Legends and Lattes. Based on what we are told about this particular villain means the stakes should be even higher, the danger more real, and the conflict more nuanced and complex. Since this isn’t a dark, epic fantasy, and the real focus is on Viv’s relationship with her new friends and saving this bookshop, the necromancy stuff just falls flat. The action scenes toward the end feel tacked on and again don’t really feel like they need to be there.
As I criticize the very purpose and existence of Bookshops and Bonedust, I want to emphasize that it is by no means a bad book. I read it over the winter holidays (I read Legends and Lattes the year before during the American Thanksgiving holiday), and it nicely encapuslated those warm holiday feelings. As I mentioned, Baldree knows his way around telling a story…especially in making an engaging narrative around a story in which very little actually happens. I’m normally a high stakes reader; I like when worlds are ending, gods are battling, etc., and so books like this are a great change of pace. If you liked Legends and Lattes and wished it was 300ish pages longer, than Bookshops and Bonedusts is exactly what you are looking for.
I’ve seen many, many five-star reviews for this book, and so I think I’m a bit of an outlier with my thoughts here. So hopefully reading this review alone doesn’t automatically turn you off from the book! Bookshops and Bonedusts still have a lot to offer, including being one of the best love letters to booklovers and booksellers in fantasy. If you have a favorite indie bookstore, that place that is a transportative and magical home away from home, this book will bubble up those nostalgic wonderful feelings of walking among the shelves and finding your next favorite read.
Concluding Thoughts: Since the publication of Legends and Lattes the cozy fantasy has exploded in a lot of different directions, and authors are finding ways to achieve those warming vibes with stories that have something a bit more to say. I’m afraid that this particular prequel has gotten a bit lost in the dust. It is still a beautifully constructed novel, with some fun, quirky characters and a love letter to booklovers and booksellers everywhere. However, because Baldree and Tor went back to the same well again with this book, it just fails to live up to what Legends and Lattes had to offer, and ultimately doesn’t justify its own existence (or the hours readers will sink into the book). I’m still a huge fan of Baldree and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us in the future, perhaps this time a bit away from Viv.