When a war ends, most soldiers return home. Others seek to make a new one. One former Special Forces has moved to a small town in a country neighbouring his victorious nation, where he opens a bakery and hones his new skills. Alas, his success on this commercial battlefield is sorely lacking, as the poor guy is just too intimidating to attract customers. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally appealing, particularly enthusiastic, slightly familiar girl wanting to accept his Help Wanted advert could be the turnaround he needs, but is it really possible to leave the past behind you? What if others feel differently?
The continent of Europea used to host the capital of a star-spanning civilisation, far past the “sufficiently advanced technology” part of the famous quote. Yet, history holds that this capital simply disappeared, as though God willed it from existence, leaving behind only scattered remnants to be fought over by those clawing themselves from the ashes. One of these wars has recently ended, with national borders changed, populations still bruised and soldiers out of a job. The story follows one-such man, who opens a small bakery in a small town and enjoys small success due to his frightening countenance. His fortunes change, however, when a white-haired red-eyed girl answers his Help Wanted advert. But they say the past can catch up with you. Sometimes, apparently literally.
How Was It?
Okay, first off, this novel has an awesome title. Were I browsing through a bookshop and saw something with this on the cover or spine, there is very little chance I would not pick it up to have a look. If that could be said to be the first test any story must pass, this one does so magnificently.
That being said, the title does immediately set up certain assumptions about the tone of the story. In my case, it had me assuming a tale with humour somewhat predominant (perhaps due to conflation in my mind between another series with a “Combat ‘Occupation’” title and one with bread and baking as a central motivation). This was immediately challenged by the two-page spread introducing the cast, setting our baker’s place of work in a former independent territory, with two of the cast remarked upon for their clearly-stated lack of prejudice against him. Meanwhile, the third non-titular character is in turn clearly described as a war orphan who considers Lud ‘the enemy.’ ‘Retired soldier trying to make a new life’ is not a too-uncommon conceit, but rarely do such stories try to make light of the difficulty they encounter whilst at the same time presenting them with the consequences of their former occupation.
Now, if the first challenge any story faces is to get noticed in the first place, the second would be to hook any potential reader quickly enough that they keep reading, rather than the brief attention gained by the cover or title faltering and the novel being put aside. This is even more important for a first novel of any potential series, and the prologue here succeeds admirably in my opinion. Indeed, the prologue actually remains my favourite part of the entire read. Whilst it does make the identity of the titular Waitress quite easy to suspect, I found myself glad that this wasn’t held back or hidden in order to be a sudden twist, or even just something obvious that the story still tries to dance around.
Following on, the short post-prologue ‘Introduction’ provides the last elements required before the story can start proper: The existence of the “So advanced it’s practically magic” society that disappears into myth, and various nation-states which squabble over the remains.
And immediately afterwards noun abuse! A town called Organbaelz and the bakery is called Tockerbrot? Honestly, I found myself chuckling. They’re not the worst I’ve encountered, though I do have to wonder if the author knew what he was doing when he named the bakery. “Brot” was familiar to me from my school-level German. However, when I went to check “Tocker”, the reply I got was for a regional slang term. I guess we shall see if the bakery deserves to be called “Moronloaf.”
The first part of the story proceeds somewhat as I initially expected. Less tomfoolery, but pretty light-hearted and some silliness whilst still not forgetting that it’s given itself a post-War scenario to work within, and one which is recognising that even victory can suck. Things start to jar slightly as they progress however, and the atmosphere starts to not be quite in tune with the events. I can’t be certain it’s intentional (though it didn’t break my immersion, instead just giving me a sense something wasn’t right), but it does herald the rather significant genre-shift which occurs in the second half of the novel, where the realities of war - even post-war - abruptly move their way to the fore. And after things suddenly get serious, they quickly turn very very dark, far more so than I had expected even after my initial assumptions had been revised.
Honestly, I think things try a little too hard in the specific sequence I’m referring to. Not to say the backstory of our protagonist baker is impossibly unrealistic, but it doesn’t quite... stick the landing, I guess you could say, and here I did find my suspension of disbelief taking a few hits. Fortunately, it doesn’t last too long (defined as ‘long enough to make me stop reading’), and afterwards the story moves into the third act and we move more towards “Combat” from “Baker”. And I must admit, I think no matter how skilled a combatant, knocking someone out by throwing bullets at them is a stretch. But… eh, I’ve seen worse.
As the climax of the story proceeds, things certainly start to relate back more strongly to the fact that this is more a science-fiction setting than any other - a statement which might seem strange given one of the main characters is an Artificial Intelligence, but up until this point it’s been something of an intellectual label rather than something with imminent relevance. Yes there is AI, yes there are mecha, but these aspects don’t really impinge when the story is concerning itself with baking bread. But then, that lost civilisation becomes more than a plot point and how it still affects the present world is revealed as a central element to everything which has been occurring in the background. Indeed, the idea that even the mundane trappings of high science can be miraculous to the less advanced is something we in the ‘modern’ world can sometimes take for granted.
Seeing Sven be a complete badass was also very satisfying. The confirmation of her identity does not come as any surprise at all, but then it was never really concealed. As I said earlier, it was quite obvious right from the prologue. That there is apparently a great deal more to her than that only becomes apparent slowly, but I feel it does provide the strongest direction for any continuation. Indeed, more than our baker, this feels far more like Sven’s story, even if it spends the majority of the time following Lud. Still, they are partners.
Lastly, I like that the penultimate chapter of the novel is labelled an Interlude. This is definitely a tale just getting started, and it hopefully implies that the author knows where it goes from here. This interlude also serves to expand the scope of what may happen from here on out (as well as adding yet another genre influence to the grand melee). And happily, after the significant dark turn the story took around the two-thirds mark, the final Epilogue ends things with some of that humour that I was expecting before I started.
It may sound strange to say, but the best part of The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress for me was the beginning. The Prologue reminded me of reading Keith Laumer’s Bolo stories, a setting of which I am very fond, and so comparing something to it is certainly a compliment to my mind. The rest of the story can only continue such a comparison in the loosest of manners however (though the commonalities do try to make a comeback later on), and my biggest lasting impression was “My, didn’t it try on a lot of genre-hats.” I never felt that it jumped from one to another too fast though, and it provides a lot of potential vectors for sequels to carry on. I do think a tighter and deeper story could be accomplished if any sequel concentrates its focus more specifically though, but I guess we’ll see. That said, if I’ve already mentioned two tests any story must pass to be considered ‘Good’, then a third must surely be “I’m interested in what comes next.”
The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress is written by SOW with art by Zaza and is published by Hobby Japan under the HJ Bunko imprint. The series is available for purchase digitally in English on the Bookwalker Global site.
Date of Publication: June 30th, 2017
Publisher: Hobby Japan