Robin Sloan, author of the acclaimed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, serves up another modern-day fantasy hidden in the side streets of San Francisco. This one’s about sourdough bread – the classic San Francisco cuisine. Sloan’s San Francisco enchants, as he weaves an aura of mystery around the sourdough, but his meandering prose leaves little room for exploration and flirts with pandering rather creating.
Sourdough stars a lonely software engineer named Lois, who spends all day trying to program robot arms at her job, and all night curling up asleep. She lives alone, has lukewarm friendships with her coworkers, and her only social life involves occasionally attending meetings of a club of women all named Lois. However, she befriends two brothers (and the only employees) of a new Mazg restaurant in her neighborhood, which delivers delicious soup alongside legendary sourdough bread. Lois becomes their “number one customer” by ordering their food over the phone whenever she’s away from her desk. Their friendship almost evaporates, however, when the boys show up at her door one night to drop off the sourdough starter and one last meal before they flee the country. Once Lois starts baking with the mysterious starter, she enters down a rabbit hole of foodies, weird tech/food combos, an evil corporation, and apparently magical bacteria.
With great surprise, my fingers praise the baking scenes. As Lois mixes the dough, the active, bouncy prose creates rhythm while she makes an utter mess of her kitchen in the process (which my last roommates will testify happens a lot. Sorry, guys!). The fun atmosphere almost conceals the sinister elements of the dough, as Lois’s baking career and sourdough starter only continue to rise. The cast of characters grows as well to include quirky personalities such as an overworked bioengineer trying build her own Lembas bread, an enthusiastic cookbook librarian, and a wise, near mystical goatherd who lives in trailer in Alameda. However, my favorite detail, perhaps is the Mazg.
The Mazg do a good enough job of staying hidden that they only appeared in this novel despite existing for thousands of years. Their mythical culture reveals itself as Lois keeps in touch with of one her Mazg neighbors – the chef who began nurturing the sourdough starter – via email. As the story involves, the Mazg pilfer elements from Greek, Jewish, and Romani culture and blend them into a homogenous and mysterious narrative involving pirates and lots of music. In fact, Lois’s success as a baker stems from the music of the Mazg culture.
Despite inventing the Mazg, San Franciscan culture dominates this novel. The city looms or lurks in the back of every scene, from Lois’s office drone job in the Silicon Valley to the foodies who have overrun Alameda. A scene where Lois drinks Anchor Steam beer while eating sourdough might seem like overkill, but that’s the price of admission for a Robin Sloan novel. No, perhaps Lois’s perfect baking record irritates me more. She never has a loaf collapse or even burn, but these obstacles can be explained away by the magic in the starter with which she works. The novel’s real hang-ups come from the plot which meanders along without real conflict until about two-thirds of the way through. The slow reveal of the mystery of the Magz and the strangeness of their sourdough starter don’t really provide enough of an engine to support the colorful descriptions of San Francisco that the book ambles past. Once conflict does strike, the story winds down to an end so predictable that even a few of the characters comment about it.
Overall, though, I enjoyed the book, partly because it reawakened a months-dormant interest in sourdough spurred by Sarah Owens’s 2015 cookbook, also titled Sourdough. Any other inspired readers should also read Ms. Owens to begin making their own bread at home. Sloan’s novel provided light, fun reading about magic food at a chill pace, but the lack of energy can sometimes drag.
Three out of five stars. Recommend for fans of TGON Bakes! And also for readers with a lot of extra time to burn.
Page count: 259
Favorite quote: “I attached a photo of myself, proudly holding up a sliver of a slice of sourdough, my cheeks full of the rest. Was it cute? It was cute.”