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I endorse “Baker Thief” to move forward to the semi-finals round in Before We Go Blog for SPFBO 8.

baker thiefI have provided an honest review of this book below for purposes of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) Number 8 competition in which this book is entered, and assigned to Before We Go Blog for judging.
 
My next SPFBO read was the steampunk fantasy/sci-fi “Baker Thief” by Claudie Arsenault. This was a fantastic, fun, thoughtful novel that combined superpowers, witches, non-romantic love, police procedural, semi-dark fantasy with a cozy fantasy feel, and some of the most positive inclusion and diverse representation I have read in any fantasy book.
 
Let me qualify this review by saying I am cisgender, heterosexual male, therefore, I am not a member of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, though I consider myself an ally of that community. I beg indulgence in my analysis here, as I likely will be inadequate or inaccurate in appropriately capturing all the elements in this book related to LGBTQIA2S+. Please forgive me, in advance. I will do my best to do justice in this regard.   
 
The book centres around the primary characters of Claude and Claire, and Adéle, their intensifying relationship.  
 
Claude and Claire are the genderfluid, aromantic owner of the Croissant-toi, a lovely pastry shop that delights its loyal customers with tasty, comforting food and a warm, caring atmosphere. They utilize the “he/him” pronouns as Claude, while Claire uses the “she/her” pronouns. But Claude and Claire are hiding a secret lifestyle, as a burglar by night. 
 
The reason for the nighttime thievery? Claude and Claire discover that their city’s utility company is engaged in a reprehensible practice, and aim to stop it. The city is – by force – corralling those residents who are magic-users, draining them of their life force, and tapping into that life force as a means of a substitute for hydro-electric power in the city.  
 
The conduit for this new power obtained are bright red gems called exocores, which contain the essence of the magic-users inside. Claude and Claire are also a magic-user. The brave and good-hearted Claude and Claire elect to steal the exocores to prevent this horrible exploitation, and save their magic-user brethren. 
 
So by day, while Claude bakes treats and lifts the spirits of his clientele, by night Claire prowls the rooftops of the city, stealing exocores. Then everything changes when Claude and Claire’s beloved twin sister, a magic-user herself, vanishes, making their crusade to save the city’s mages a lot more personal.
 
Meanwhile, Adéle is a police officer, who has relocated to the city where Claude and Claire live. Nervous about fitting in with her new service, just prior to her first day on the job, she is the victim of Claire’s theft. Adéle is perturbed that she has her own exocore stolen by the jovial, nonchalant, but capable thief, puzzled by Claire’s demeanour, and frustrated by her inability to immediately thwart the thief. 
 
Adéle vows to track down Claire and bring her to justice, impressing her new colleagues in the process, and redeeming herself from the embarrassment of letting Claire get the upper hand. Little does Adéle realize that the personable and charismatic baker Claude whom Adéle is developing feelings for, and pondering dating, is also Claire, her nemesis. 
 
But when Adéle uncovers the true nature of Claude and Claire’s secret vigilante activities, will she be on the side of the law, or the side of what’s right? And what about her burgeoning feelings for them? And theirs for her?
 
The characters in this book were stupendous, and the job that Arsenault did with characterization is marvellous. 
 
As someone in law enforcement, I really gravitated towards Adéle’s character, the issues she faced balancing her morals with her duty, some of the challenges of working as a police officer within police culture (which has many positives, however definitely has many concerns, including a propensity to become toxic). She is also very human, with a physical challenge in asthma, and many human frailties. I love when a peak behind the tough and outwardly invincible exterior of coppers reveals their very mortal and highly vulnerable side.
 
Claude and Claire were also fantastic. I was reminded of the duality in all of us, through Claude and Claire’s gender fluidity. People are complex and made of many different sides, where even the opposite characteristics can be contained in one person. Claire is saucy, flamboyant, brilliant, enchanting, while Claude is witty, reserved, gentle, charismatic. 
 
While I wanted a bit more out of the supplementary characters being fleshed out, the protagonists were so strong that it did not detract from my overall enjoyment, however slightly from the overall score. Still, I adored the fact that there were characters with prosthetics, disabled characters, characters with mental health concerns. The depictions were well-rounded and amazingly representative, if not sometimes left somewhat less explored to the depth that I would have desired. 
 
The themes in the book are poignant. Aresenault takes the dilemma of an aromantic character and a demisexual character trying to sort out the boundaries, context, unique needs, comfort zones, and challenges of their relationship, and I found it extremely compelling. Arsenault illustrated that non-romantic love can be just as interesting as non-romantic love, and actually takes many of the common tropes associated with romantic love and flip some readers’ expectations, brilliantly. The author also pulls no punches about the difficulties of dealing with having to identify with a gender that one does not feel they belong to. 
 
There is assuredly some darkness to the book, including human experimentation, genocide, police violence, with perseuction, usury, even torture and murder of the witches. However, in the queer-normative society, not Utopian by any means, it is free of queer persecution. This was a refreshing take in terms of worldbuilding. Yet the darkness is presented in such a contrastingly humour, light style and flavour, the book often feels very much, as alluded to in the beginning of this review, like cozy fantasy, as opposed to dark urban fare. 
 
And oh, that worldbuilding, which had me at being analogous with Quebec. As a Canadian who has visited and fallen in love particularly with Quebec City, upon which I believe the main setting is based, I could literally taste and smell the cuisine, feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, and drink in the sights while reading this book. Replete with the colloquialisms of Francophone society, the witticisms, even French-inspired neopronouns, this world had me captivated, and I loved spending every minute immersed in it. 
 
Love for this book truly snuck up on me, and by the quarter way point, I was fully invested, and absolutely enamoured with it. The diverting themes, the trope subversion, the allosexual aromantic representation, the levity, wit, and light-hearted touch balanced with the darker themes, were so skillfully done. The trans, ace and aro spectrum characters, the enchanting and familiarly comforting setting, the mystery and police thriller elements, everything hit me in the feels. 
 
I endorse “Baker Thief” to move forward to the semi-finals round in Before We Go Blog for SPFBO 8.
 
If I consider a book a five-star read, those are the books I will be recommending to be put forward for advancement to either a quarter-final, semi-final, or final round of SPFBO within Before We Go Blog. 
For “Baker Thief,”  my score is 4.50, rounded up to 5 out of 5 stars. 

Check Out Some of Our Other Reviews

#SPFBO8 Review and Cut – The Empire’s Lion by Nathan Tudor

#SPFBO8 Review and Cut – The Night Comes Alive by Ross Hughes

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