At some point last year, Legends & Lattes went from fun, self-published cozy fantasy in a D&D-inspired world to one of the hottest books in the genre, riding the wave to Nebula and Hugo nominations and an Astounding Award nomination for author Travis Baldree. It was on my “look for a chance to get to this” list for a while, but the Hugo shortlist appearance made it a must-read in order to fairly evaluate the Best Novel nominees.
Legends & Lattes follows Viv, a fearsome orc adventurer who acquired a taste for Gnomish coffee somewhere in her travels, who decided to give up her life of violence and open a coffeeshop in a city where the beverage is almost entirely unknown. That’s…pretty much the plot. Along the way, she encounters obstacles to overcome and makes friends with people who become coworkers, neighbors, and customers.
Legends & Lattes is a short and extraordinarily easy read. The prose flows smoothly and offers very little barrier to quick reading, even if you’re not especially familiar with the D&D races that make up the main cast. But despite being famously low-stakes, it’s a surprisingly action-driven book. Now I don’t mean action like in the sense of swordfights breaking out every other chapter. But the narrative is driven by Viv’s list of things to do. The characters are actually fairly shallow, with Viv mostly motivated by liking coffee and not wanting to return to her violent past. But she has a whole host of tasks to accomplish, from repairing the storefront to buying ingredients to hiring staff to advertising. And so despite the low stakes and cozy vibes, the plot structure is one I associate more with thrillers: a series of obstacles to be lined up and knocked down.
Unfortunately, that plot structure is not one that especially appeals to me. I never really struggled to keep turning the pages, simply because of how easy it was to read, but without much in the way of character background, I also wasn’t very invested in the outcomes of Viv’s coffee-related travails. I certainly cracked a few smiles at some endearing secondary characters she met along the way and some winking connections to the real world, which was enough to make for a pleasant read. But to upgrade from pleasant to delightful, I needed a deeper character connection than I got.
My other notable complaint was the worldbuilding. Now I’m not much of a worldbuilding nerd, and I’m generally happy when it sits in the background and doesn’t force itself to the center of attention. But the world in Legends & Lattes was entirely driven by a combination of D&D and things that would be cute, and there were times when it overwhelmed my ability to suspend disbelief. That coffee was an unknown product imported solely due to the efforts of a lone aficionado was fine. It was central to the plot, and while the story didn’t give a lot of details about the state of foreign trade, it clearly painted Viv as working hard to bring a new product to town. But so many other foodstuffs that became central to Viv’s shop fell into the strange intersection of “things that are easy to acquire domestically” and “things that are virtually unknown domestically.” I bought it the first time, but the more it repeated, the harder it was to stay in the story and not wonder about the people who went to so much trouble to import ingredients without any market for them.
I understand that the worldbuilding details won’t bother every reader, and my dislike of plot-driven stories is my own. So I can certainly understand why Legends & Lattes was such a big hit. It’s sweet, it’s an easy read, and there are some lovely found family elements. If you don’t mind the shallow characterization and can avoid thinking too hard about some of the background elements, it could easily be a favorite read. But for me, it was merely a pleasant one, with too many things missing to really ascend to the level of great.
Recommended if you like: low stakes books that don’t make you think too hard.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Mundane Jobs, Mythical Beasts, and Queernorm Society, and it’s also a Book Club selection.
Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.