Fantasy has always had a gift for being malleable to incorporate other genres of fiction from horror, historical, mystery, folklore, fairy tale, humor, romance, suspense, and westerns, so why not slice of life? It has been a staple for anime for years and has become quite popular as a video game genre, so it’s about time fantasy, one of the biggest growing genres of the last twenty years, embraced the cozy, low-stakes, relatively wholesome storytelling as well. Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree does just this, balancing elements of fantasy with slice of life through the filter of an adventurer named Viv wanting to start a new life for herself by running a coffee shop.
Trying to start a new life is not a novel concept for fantasy but is quite relatable. For Viv, the adventure, or at least the typical fantasy slaying of monsters with a party of people for glory, fame, and wealth kind, is over. She’s done that and now wants to do something new that doesn’t involve swinging a sword, and that is to make coffee. To change who you are and to let the old you go can be difficult and Viv struggles with this as obstacles come her way against the coffee shop. Picking up the sword again would be easy to solve the novel’s few conflicts for both the main character to do and the author to write. Still, Baldree doesn’t take the easy route to resolve Viv’s problems. Yes, the stakes are lower than slaying a world-threatening monster but protecting your business, your livelihood, and the new life you’ve made for yourself is a stake people can relate to. Some readers would wish they could pick up the sword like Viv and solve their problems that way. That is not what Viv does, though tempted she is, as most of the conflicts are solved the way many can, with communication and conflict resolution.
The stakes are simple: open a coffee shop and sell coffee to a town that had never had coffee before so they can experience what Viv did when she first tried it. Baldree uses each step of this goal to introduce the cast. When the shop needs building, the stoic hob Calamity enters the story. He doesn’t quite understand why anyone would want to drink “bean water” until he tries it himself. When Viv needs help in the shop, Tandri, the succubus with the love of making art, is introduced and quickly fills the void in knowledge Viv is missing to make her shop a success. When coffee isn’t enough, Thimble, the rattkin who loves to bake, joins the crew, adding his sweet cinnamon rolls to the menu. Once the coffee shop is doing well, the stakes rise with it, placing the coffee shop within the sights of the local kingpin known as the Madrigal forcing Viv to choose between who she is and the new Viv she wants to be. There is also the matter of Fennus, one of Viv’s former adventuring party members and quite an unlikeable fellow. He believes he knows the secret of Viv’s coffee shop’s success and is actively trying to steal it. Still, Viv’s anxiety is more so the conflict. Her self-doubt and the imposter syndrome pervades her decision-making and interactions with others. The book’s climax plays into this, as Viv is tested on whether she will continue on her path of who she wants to become or revert to who she was.
The plot isn’t what makes Legend & Lattes but the character interactions. Tandri and Viv’s growing relationship and fondness for one another, even when they don’t realize it, will make anyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. Thimble’s tiny but enthusiastic voice for the right quality of ingredients and the magic he bakes in the kitchen because it is joyful. Amity, the dire-cat going from randomly showing up to becoming the protective shop pet is endearing. Baldree also does a great job of using fantasy races without relying on any of their stereotypes for characterization. In fact, most characters try to show they’re more than people typically expect from orcs, hobs, and succubus.
Legends & Lattes doesn’t require a lot of forethought about its fantasy aspects. It’s simply fun to read, and the average reader with any fantasy experience would understand what is going on. Dwarves, gnomes, elves, and orcs are all part of the pop culture lexicon nowadays. Still, any creature that isn’t is easily explained with context clues. The adorable rattkin who bakes is a humanoid mouse person, the dire-cat who roams the coffee shop is a larger-than-normal cat, and so forth. Besides that, coffee is easy to understand. Any anachronism that comes with the idea of a coffee shop, like the word latte, is quickly explained by the author using the world he has written without pause or feeling convoluted.
Is it realistic in any way whatsoever? No, of course not. It’s fantasy, and part of the fantasy is how well it goes running the coffee shop. There are no wage disputes, cutting corners on production, or customers with unrealistic expectations of the service that would come with a more real-world take on this book, but that is part of the enjoyment of it. They’re all just trying to make the business work and apply their craft, low stakes but one people can cheer for. Viv and Tandri’s growing relationship is definitely the centerpiece of it. Viv wants Tandri to be herself, explore her art, and stay by her side, but she won’t say it. Tandri wants Viv’s dreams to succeed and increasingly goes out of her way to make it so but doesn’t express her feelings for Viv either. It’s an underlying will-they-won’t-they that the book does not dwell on, but lets flourish with a predictable but not unwelcome outcome.
The book is literally the real treasure is the friends we made along the way trope, one that isn’t inherently bad but has its reputation as a joke because of the more infamous times it was used as a cop-out for an actual resolution. Baldree pulls it off in Legends & Lattes, creating a refreshing quick read to enjoy knowing the stakes are low and likely to resolve but enjoying the ride anyway. The potential for more books like this one will hopefully be high.
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Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Tor books.
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