Caffeinated Comfort: A Review of Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree

            Not every story needs to have high stakes, or even high tension, to keep the plot interesting and the characters engaging.  There are entire genres of fiction dedicated to the small things in life, detailing the daily lives of people from all walks of life.  The most well-known of these genres is known as slice-of-life, which itself covers a wide range of storytelling methods.  More recently, there has been a new variation of this type of storytelling, simply known as “cozy.”  It started with video games that prioritized creating a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for the player, and has since moved into books as well.  The hallmark of cozy is to make the reader feel safe and secure in the setting and among the characters.  A sort of comfort food of fiction.  The book’s setting, characters, and plot points all work in concert to create a special kind of reading experience, where there is still conflict, but the conflicts resolve in such a way that the main characters are allowed to be happy.  For obvious reasons, cozy fiction also draws a lot of queer readers, finding accepting and loving environments within a book’s pages.

            Travis Baldree is a full-time audio book narrator whose voice can be found all over fiction across multiple series of fantasy novels.  Prolific and talented, he has made a full-time career in an industry where finding well-paying jobs can often be difficult, and many narrators require other full or part time jobs on top of their recordings.  Before that, Baldree worked as a video game developer on titles like Torchlight, Fate, and Rebel Galaxy.  In short, he is not a newcomer to storytelling, and has immersed himself in the art for a very long time, specifically among fantasy and science-fiction.  Baldree’s debut novel, which came out earlier this year, is Legends & Lattes: A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes, and a prime example of cozy fiction in action.  Or rather, in repose.  As one could likely tell from the extended title, Legends & Lattes is not the type of fantasy where heroes go on quests to save the world.  Instead, the book focuses on the smaller things, the things that happen in daily life that are not usually the stuff of stories.  It is the kind of book that engrosses you with the details, holds you in scenes, and creates such a comforting atmosphere that will make you wish the story kept going beyond the final page.

            In Legends & Lattes, we follow Viv the orc barbarian, a strong and experienced adventurer pining for a new life, as she retires from her old life and moves to the city of Thune.  Thune is a large city in Baldree’s setting, and home to many different fantasy races, although Viv’s orc countenance still stands out and cuts an imposing figure for anyone who does not know her well.  Viv’s goal in moving to Thune is to open the city’s very first coffee shop.  In the world of the novel, coffee is a gnomish drink, and something Viv discovered and fell in love with on her travels.  The early chapters of the novel follow Viv as she first arrives in Thune and searches for the perfect location for hew new shop.  Using a pair of dousing rods and following the directions of a magical good luck charm, Viv ends up purchasing a run-down livery to convert into the shop, and the plot then follows the intricacies of her negotiating that purchase, finding a carpenter and craftsman, and actually taking the time to convert the building for her use.  The book lets us follow Viv in each aspect of the process, relishing the comfort of mundane tasks.  This is also the first time Viv has ever done something along these lines, so there are points of tension and conflicts that arise.  However, the conflicts are never allowed to overshadow the cozy point of the book.

            While Viv is the main character, and the story is told from her third-person point-of-view, she is far from the only main character.  Of the other main characters, the first we meet is Cal, a kobold carpenter and all-around craftsman in Thune, and the one who holds the most responsibility for getting Viv’s coffee shop up and running.  He is a constant partner throughout the story, although his page presence waxes and wanes based on the work needed to the shop, although his friendship with Viv keeps him coming back.  Then there is Thimble, a rattkin baker and fan favorite.  Thimble is a man of very few words, but a genius with dough and spices who, in the world of the book, invents cinnamon rolls, chocolate-filled croissants, and biscotti.  A common theme of his character arc is the other main characters doubting whatever new food he had come up with, trying it, and absolutely falling in love.  Then there is Tandri, arguably the second most important character to the plot after Viv.  In fact, Tandri is the only other character on the cover aside from Viv.  A succubus, Tandri is followed by superstitions and prejudices based on the folklore surrounding her species.  However, she makes it clear that these things do not define her, as Viv quickly hires her as the coffee shop’s only other full-time employee.  Incredibly intelligent and a talented artist, Tandri is the one responsible for advertising the shop and creating a menu that both listed items and taught customers how to order these strange drinks and foods.  At first, it seems like each character we meet is such a strange connection, that they would not normally spend time together.  But the coffee shop, also named Legends & Lattes, brings them all together throughout the story and shows them just how compatible they really are.

            While the main characters each posses a different and distinct personality, their relationships with each other are defined by mutual respect, love and acceptance.  Conflict is few and far between.  That is not to say that there is no conflict in Legends & Lattes, however.  In fact, there is a lot of conflict within the plot.  It is just that, for the most part, it is not handled the way you expect it to be handled.  Early on, Viv runs afoul of the major criminal organization in Thune when they realize she is setting up shop and try to enter her into their protection racket.  Viv, the headstrong adventuring type, makes it clear that she has no intention to pay, even going so far as to mount her old sword on a clearly visible wall in the shop.  Her conflict with the group escalates throughout the story as they remind her of the upcoming deadline, and try to make a show of force.  While violence never breaks out, Viv does come close.  However, Legends & Lattes is not that kind of story, where violence solves problems.  Without spoiling it, the conflict is resolved midday through the story, and in such a way that perfectly fits with the vibe that the story is aiming for.  It is an unexpected resolution, but one that completely makes sense for the book.  Cozy fiction is still allowed to have conflict.  After all, conflict drives storytelling.  But the way in which the conflict resolves matters more than the conflict itself.

            Of course, with a story like this, there exists a dash of romance.  From the moment Tandri is introduced to the plot, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which her and Viv end up intimate, and the story does eventually start building towards that as the two grow into close friends, and other characters start teasing Viv for not paying attention.  However, the romantic elements of the plot are a slow build, which only makes it more enjoyable in a way.  We get to see Viv and Tandri become friends first, growing a relationship built on love and respect for the other.  The two women teach and improve each other, and their relationship is one of the cornerstones of Legends & Lattes, next to the coffee shop itself.  Even though Tandri is a succubus, or maybe because she is a succubus, she never forces the issue or makes the first move.  While this is a cozy book, it does not ignore its characters anxieties.  Rather, Baldree allows them to exist and be addressed in healthy ways through honest communication.  A main focus on the plot is also Viv, and the other characters, finding the things that they have needed in their life.  For an adventurer always on the move, the most important thing Viv lacked was a home.  As Legends & Lattes makes abundantly clear, a home is more than just a place, it is the people you choose to have in your life.

            Legends & Lattes is the perfect book to curl up somewhere with a cup of hot chocolate, tea, or especially coffee, and really allow yourself to sink into the story.  From the first page to the last, Baldree does a wonderful job of drawing the reader in and holding them with the steady pace of the plot, the warm atmosphere, and the accepting characters.  Find someplace cozy, somewhere that makes you feel comfortable, and Legends & Lattes will truly shine as a piece of escapism.  Especially in our current chaotic environment, it is OK to take a break and find something to truly enjoy, where you do not have to worry about violence or bigotry intruding upon the cozy atmosphere.  Although the story reaches a great conclusion and does not really need a sequel, you will be hard-pressed to find any reader who does not wish for more time with Viv, Tandri, and their coffee shop.  Legends & Lattes is exactly the type of book we need more of now.

Legends & Lattes can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 5 days

Next on the List: Age of Ash, by Daniel Abraham

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