Well, I was charmed.
What do D&D adventurers do when they’ve decided that they’ve quested their last quest and crawled their last dungeon? In the case of Viv, the orc barbarian who’s ready to hang up her greatsword Blackblood, her heart’s desire is to bring to the city of Thune the wonders of a fabled drink she encountered among gnomes in a faraway city: coffee. “I told you I came across it in Azimuth, and I remember following the smell to the shop. They called it a café. People just sat around drinking it from these little ceramic cups, and I had to try it, and … it was like drinking the feeling of being peaceful. Being peaceful in your mind. Well, not if you have too much, then it’s something else.” (p. 33)
Before the beginning of Legends & Lattes, Viv has researched what’s needed to open one of these cafés in a city that has none, that has never in fact heard of coffee. Or at least she thinks she has. She even sets up her party’s last adventure to secure a magic item that she believes will bring good fortune to her new venture. That acquisition is dispatched in the introduction, along with the item’s previous owner. She forgoes any other loot from the expedition, leaving her fellow adventurers somewhere between bemused and suspicious, depending on their character. But she soon forgets that detail in her relief at retiring from the melees and in her excitement at her new tasks.
Other details are more in her line. She has a keen eye for talent, scoping out a potential carpenter for the repairs to the building that will house her café by going down to the waterfront and watching who’s handy with tools and economical with the motions of his work. That turns out to be Calamity — “call me Cal” — who’s half her height and a hob, definitely not a hobbit. He’s taciturn but friendly, knows his business and knows the city. He’s the first of a new kind of party she assembles, one dedicated to building rather than looting.
Viv really does want to change. When she hangs up her sword, she does it literally, putting it up on hooks behind the countertop. One of the through-lines of Legends & Lattes is whether she really can start a new life, or if she will have to go back to the old ways and cut through her problems. When she sends Cal into the city to buy supplies for the renovation, she doesn’t want to come along, even if her looming might help him get a better price. “I’ve lived a long time knowing I’m a threat walking. I’d rather that wasn’t the shape of it for you.” (p. 28)
In due course, Val acquires an assistant — Tandri, a succubus, and thus Viv’s opposite in what people expect from looking at her — a baker, a bard, and regular customers, some more eccentric than others. There are some things that go bump in the night, one of which turns out to be a dire cat, something much like a domestic cat but enlarged to a couple hundred pounds. Can there be a café without a cat? Of course not. Viv also acquires enemies, foremost among them, apparently, the local protection racket. Viv is not afraid and does not want to pay.
“But Cal, I think you have a pretty good idea of what these hands have done. Do you really see me bobbing a curtsy to a bunch of men too stupid to know the odds if they were to tangle with me?” …
“Maybe so. This place, though?” He rapped the table with a knuckle. “It ain’t fireproof. So, fine, you can take care of yourself, but I figure there’s more you got a stake in. Am I wrong?”
Viv frowned and stared at him, lost for words. (p. 43)
Stakes in a story don’t have to be the world, they just have to be what characters care about. Baldree gets readers invested in Viv and her café and her new-found friends, and threats from the local crime boss are as important to the story as monsters from the vasty deep would be to another kind of fantasy. Complications ensue, and things look bad for the café for a while, but it comes right in the end.
Another L word goes well with this novel: light. Most of the conflicts are quickly resolved, and most of the people have a good side that shows through most of the time. And the ones who seem to be irredeemable assholes get their comeuppance. Legends & Lattes is light, enjoyable and charming, and I was happy to be charmed. I wouldn’t want this to be the only kind of fantasy available to read, but I am glad that it exists. Even if I can think of better books in a similar vein. T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and Emily Tesh’s Silver in the Wood spring to mind, though both have darker, deeper undercurrents than Legends & Lattes. I’m reminded of a line from the late-90s song “Crush“: Just let it be what it’ll be. Legends & Lattes is quite good at what does, and doesn’t need to try to be anything more.