Review: “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan + Magical Realism vs Urban Fantasy🥖

sourdough by robin sloan book cover from goodreads, background image bread from unsplash by joanna rae lopez
Original background cover photo credit: Joanna Rae Lopez on Unsplash

It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.

Sourdough, Chapter 1 opening

Author: Robin Sloan
Publication Date: September 5th 2017
Publisher: MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Find it on: Goodreads

Synopsis

Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her—feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it.

Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up.

When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?

From Goodreads

Review

Robin Sloan presents a unique and endearing magical realism fiction in their 2017 release, Sourdough. This charming story follows main character Lois Clary, a young professional software developer at a fast-paced Californian robotics company. As an ambitious recent grad who moved across the country and works long hours, Lois frequently consumes quick ‘complete’ meal shakes or orders takeout instead of cooking. But everything changes when she acquires a special sourdough starter from her favorite shop. This happy, bubbling yeast colony is the catalyst for more than Lois’ discovery of a love for baking. It kicks off a twisting adventure neither Lois or the reader could have predicted.

This was an unusual book, and it made me pause and realize I didn’t know the separation between ‘magical realism’ and ‘urban fantasy.’ For the longest time I’ve had a pre-conceived notion that I dislike urban fantasy, and so I picked up this story with some hesitation. However I ended up enjoying this book and felt compelled to look up the two definitions to reconcile them. Here’s what I found:

Magical Realism

Magical realism, perhaps the most common term, often refers to literature in particular, with magical or supernatural phenomena presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting, commonly found in novels and dramatic performances.[1]: 1–5  Despite including certain magic elements, it is generally considered to be a different genre from fantasy because magical realism uses a substantial amount of realistic detail and employs magical elements to make a point about reality, while fantasy stories are often separated from reality.[3][4][5][6][7][8][9] Magical realism is often seen as an amalgamation of real and magical elements that produces a more inclusive writing form than either literary realism or fantasy.[4]

From Wikipedia (emphasis added)
Urban Fantasy

Works of urban fantasy may be set in an approximation of our world in which the fantastic exists secretly or in a world (such as an alternative history) in which it occurs openly (or some combination of the above). Elements such as magicparanormal beings, other worlds and so on, may exist here. Common themes include coexistence or conflict between humans and other beings, and the changes such characters and events bring to local life.[4][5] Many authors, publishers, and readers distinguish them from works of paranormal romance, which use similar characters and settings, but focus on the romantic relationships between characters.[1]

From Wikipedia

From this brief research I think the key difference between magical realism and urban fantasy is the amount of magic balanced against real world mechanics. For example – magical bread in an otherwise normal world (magical realism) vs magical creatures roaming around and interacting with humans (urban fantasy). This would make the believability higher in books about magical realism than urban fantasy and explains why I prefer the former genre. If anyone has any other definitions or examples, please feel free to comment below!

After settling that unexpected existential crisis I want to say the book itself was pretty good!

Lois was a sympathetic character – a hard-working, smart, passionate, and stressed out young adult trying to keep up with a fast-paced tech startup environment. I especially admired Lois for her independence and ambition. She isn’t intimidated by the idea of change and doesn’t hesitate long at the precipice of big decisions. She’s up for the challenge of tasks that seem impossible at first glance and works through difficulties with dogged determination. But despite all my praise Lois isn’t superhuman. The author makes clear that although she’s incredibly smart and has carved out a great start to her career, Lois still struggles and changes her mind from time to time like anyone else. In this story she undergoes a transformative journey of self-discovery spurred by the seemingly mundane act of baking of bread, and readers are along for the twisting ride.

With Lois’ hectic work life, her cooking habits at the beginning of the book (or lack thereof) felt accurate to her lifestyle and the story progression seemed plausible. There’s a stereotype that many people who work in tech either end up baking bread or doing photography as hobbies. Presumably this is because these more creative and hands-on activities balance their cerebral, screen-time heavy day job. This book ran with that idea.

Descriptions of Lois nurturing the bread starter and baking were relatable and really made me crave some fresh bread!!! 🥖 The sensory experience of baking bread is something most people can recall – e.g. the sticky feeling and yeasty smell of the dough as it’s being worked, or the warm, soft mouth-feel of the first bites of bread fresh out of the oven. Because writing about fresh-baked bread draws on universal experiences and the powerful memory-triggering sense of smell, Sourdough is positioned incredibly well to connect with a broad reader audience. Moreover many people love bread as a food item. I would be surprised if the story’s premise of bread baking doesn’t draw most people in!

Well written and easy to follow, this story boils down to the grounding and magical tale of an overworked young tech worker discovering the simple joy of baking bread. What proceeds from there on is endearing, hopeful, and unusual. At times I couldn’t see where the story was going as it took a sharp turn around a plot corner, but this unexpectedness made the story even more fascinating. Between the charming concept and wild plot turns this was a fast read!

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a cozy magical realism read – but make sure you have slices of your own fresh baked bread at the ready when you dive in! 🥖🥖🥖

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