Monday, May 8, 2023

Review: Can't Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne

 A low-stakes, cosy fantasy that unfortunately fails to pull together the magic it needs to really make the story sing.

A while ago, Elizabeth reviewed Travis Baldree's hit novel Legends and Lattes, talking about what works (and doesn't) in making it such a cosy fantasy story. I predominantly agree with her assessment, but would like to add that, at least for me, there was something in there, some little spark of magic that made me get why this got so big, why people loved it so much. Yeah, it was flawed, especially with regard to the clichés and lack of depth of character backstory, but something about it did just... click.

Of course, when you have something so wildly successful, there are going to be other stories hot on its heels - there are plenty floating around at the moment, some of which so clearly play by play copies that it's hard not to laugh - but one that seems to have caught some buzz of its own is Can't Spell Treason Without Tea, and indie published novel by Rebecca Thorne. It's not quite got the intense upswell of tiktok love that Baldree got, but it's definitely doing the rounds as another great example of cosy fantasy, without seeming like an exact duplicate.

Can't Spell Treason Without Tea follows Reyna - a royal guard to a frankly horrendous queen - and her girlfriend Kianthe - the leader of the mages of the neighbouring kingdom - in their long-hoped-for escape from both of their lives by running away from their responsibilities and setting up a cafe-cum-bookshop-cum-library together in a little town on the edge of nowhere. They need to escape the strands of their old lives, make friends, and figure out how to do this new thing that has been in neither of their skillsets up until now, and see if their thus-far-long-distance relationship can stand up to living, working and simply being together. So much the similar, you might think.

Unfortunately, Thorne does not have that little spark of magic to make it all hang together.

And it's interesting to see this, because so many of the key ingredients in the two stories are the same: sapphic love interests, the desire to open a little shop in somewhere far away, a focus on the baked goods/food in general, the kindness to be found in community, escaping the roles we play in the familiar stories, found family, all that good stuff. But what you get out of the story at the end is very different.

I think one of the key issues in Thorne's work is actually quite simple - we come into the story with the romantic relationship already in place, and nothing about that relationship changes in the course of the book. And I so wanted to like that about it. I wanted to be happy to see a stable relationship in place, and have the story not be about falling in love, but simply being in love and responding to the plot together, as a couple. There are few enough examples of this dynamic in good stories, and it's something I really treasure when it's done well, because well... once they've fallen in love, does that have to be the end of the story? It's not how it is for most people. It's not how it feels like it ought to be. And yet... here... it just doesn't work. I found myself wishing for that same old new relationship story instead because then there would feel like some sort of stake, or change, or tension or... something. Their relationship is nice, but no more than nice, and I wanted it to have a substance it was lacking - a substance that it being the beginning of a relationship would at least paper over with drama.

But it's more than that - not only does the relationship not really change, we also never get the relationship really showcased in how they react jointly to issues. We don't see Reyna and Kianthe strongly pulling together in the face of whatever drama is thrown their way. What we mainly see is them taking turns on whose go it is to be stressed out by something the other person has done. And while that can be incredibly realistic in terms of actual relationship dynamics... by the time we've had the third go around of it in the story, it feels somewhat dull. We know how it's going to play out, and then it does, and it just feels... pointless.

But I don't think this is an inherent flaw with this style of story. I think you can have a good, stable relationship at the heart of a good story, where the actual relationship doesn't change all that much through the course of the story. But it isn't this one.

Some of that is unfortunately also due to the story around it - Thorne has not set things up well to make this strong relationship the core of a strong narrative, simply because so much of what goes on around it is, to be blunt, a bit of a mess. And again, it would be easy to critique this as inherent to the low-stakes that come part and parcel with a lot of cosy fantasy, but I think that would be a mistake. There's actually quite a lot of stakes happening throughout the story here - dragon attacks are nothing if not dramatic - but the prose, the tone and the general emotion of Thorne's writing do a lot of work to downplay them in a frankly strange way. It's a rare story that makes a near death experience feel a bit bland, but this one does it. Kudos, I guess? What the problem mostly comes down to is the general vibe the whole story has of being meandering - there's not coherent plot drive at any point that makes it feel like a joined up, moving story on an actual track towards something. It's just some things that happen. And that lack of cohesion underpins everything that happens, robbing it of the drama or emotion it might have because it doesn't fit into any sort of greater pattern, it just... is.

Again, to compare it to Legends and Lattes, for all that the two are superficially similar in their low stakes, what Baldree does do is give a constant sense that we are building towards something. Viv has her end goal of her coffee shop and all the stuff that happens in the story either works towards her achieving it, is a problem sent that might prevent her achieving it, or is a benefit that comes from the process of trying to achieve it. It all ties together and feels purposeful, tight and has movement, even when the actual events that happen are incredibly small scale, like the bard wanting to come in and play to her patrons.

Can't Spell Treason Without Tea however has cast its net too broad; there are wider bits and bobs that pop up throughout the story that don't really tie back into that central plot core of the café/bookshop dream, and they just serve to rob it of the drive it would need to keep the lower stakes parts of the plot interesting. Thorne is just too interested in too many things. And many of them are interesting things! I really liked the subplot about the two competing political powers from the two countries wanting to be in charge of this nowhere town on the border, and their having to work together to solve a dragon problem. But it felt like a subplot that came from - or frankly was the whole of - another story altogether, and just pulled us away from what CSTWT could have been on its own. 

And we have enough parts like this that we end up with really quite a long-feeling book, for all its 388 pages. Somehow, it feels bloated and stagnant through much of the middle part, without ever even being long enough to have much of a middle part in the first place.

I do wonder if this is a risk inherent with cosy fantasy as a genre. Obviously it can be done well and right - I think both Legends and Lattes and The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches have something to recommend them as fun, light, enjoyable reads - but I think when you strip out higher stakes drama, you really have to be conscious of the craft of what's left to make sure it holds together as a story, with a pace people want to read. The pace doesn't have to be fast - not all stories need to be high-speed adventure romps - but there needs to be something that keeps pushing you on to read, to want to find out what happens next, or how, or just to know that it's all happy in the end. There needs to be a feeling of purpose, even at the lowest level, somewhere, that holds it all together as a "story", not a catalogue of some events that happened to some people, and the lower the stakes you strive for, the higher the risk of this failure state becomes. Maybe you fix it by adding a little bit of stakes, as a treat. Maybe you fix it with making the characters incredibly compelling, or their development particularly interesting. Maybe you put in a smidgen of a mystery. Or maybe you just hone everything to a perfect, crisp point so even the lowest of low stakes still feel considered and deliberate. There are many ways to make it work. But in the same way as the failure state of hard sf can sometimes be "textbook", I think there are enough cautionary examples out there now that we can see the failure state of cosy fantasy is just... some things what happened. And that is, to an extent, what has happened with Can't Spell Treason Without Tea.

Fundamentally, it's such a shame, because there's so much in here that could, without a lot of change, have been a fun, light, low stakes bit of fun. It's so close to getting it right. But it hasn't, and given its similarity, what that means is it ends up feeling like just another of those rip-offs, attempting to snag some of the glory from Legends and Lattes' success, when in many ways, it could so easily have been its own, albeit similar, self.

And thus I would sadly say, if you have read Legends and Lattes, don't read this, because it's just... not as good. And if you haven't read Legends and Lattes... well, just read that instead if you want something in this mode, because it does it a whole lot more competently.


The Math

Highlights: some amusing subplots with quite funny characters, cosy vibes

Nerd coefficient: 4/10

Reference:  Rebecca Thorne, Can't Spell Treason Without Tea [Rebecca Thorne, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea