Nathan’s Review of Bard City Blues by Nathaniel Webb
Expected Publication: Currently on Kickstarter; book released September 2023
Series: Standalone (planned sequels, but this book can be read alone)
Genre: Cozy fantasy
Music, magic, mystery, kissing, drinking, family, and a gelatinous cube.
Gally Chaparral is a highland girl with a dream: move to Lackmore, join the Bardic Guild, and get a gig at a fancy tavern on Symphony Hill.
Unfortunately, becoming a bard isn’t so easy. No good tavern will hire a non-Guild musician, her teacher is a jerk, and worst of all, the only job she can find is washing dishes at a bar that seems to have recently been a dungeon.
When Alix, a beautiful but obnoxious postal rider, tricks Gally into auditioning as her tavern’s new bard, things start looking up. But Gally’s first show is a disaster, and she’s only saved when a fight breaks out and the owner accuses Alix of destroying a valuable painting.
Now, to keep the gig, Gally must prove Alix’s innocence. But there’s more to the mystery than the loss of a painting, and being forced to work with Alix has Gally wondering if this brassy delivery girl is really as bad as she seems…
Review for Bard City Blues
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
Bard City Blues follows young Gally who wants to play music….which is very much against the wishes of her parents. She decides she’s going to attend a prestigious music school to help her attain access to join the Bardic Guild. To pay her way, she becomes a bard at a lowly tavern (against the wishes of the tavern keeper) and meets a whole host of tavern regulars. On the way she finds love and that maybe we don’t need to follow what society tells us we should want, but rather should define success on our own terms.
I had a complex reading experience with Bard City Blues and my opinions of the book changed quite rapidly and dramatically as I was reading it. Now that I have finished the book and had a few days to allow my thoughts to simmer, I can unequivocally say that Bard City Blues is worth your time. If you are already a cozy fantasy reader you’ll love what Webb does to both fall into the genre and add his own spin, while non-cozy fans might want to try this one out (especially if Legends and Lattes wasn’t your thing but you want that vibe).
The beginning of Bard City Blues was a tiny bit of a slog, but if you just let yourself be immersed in this small little world you will be rewarded for it.
I’m not the most read in cozy fantasy, but most books in this subgenre seem to fall into one of two major camps. First, you have the “hang out” cozies. Legends and Lattes is a perfect example of this. It doesn’t really have a plot; the allure of the book is that you just want to spend more time in this world and with these characters. You are just hanging out with them in a slice-of-life kind of way. The other cozy fantasies tend to have more of a plot; the coziness tends to come from the relatively low stakes of the book, such as a really good cozy mystery.
The problem with Bard City Blues in its early pages is that it tries to be both things at the same time, and does neither of them particularly well. We are introduced to way too many of the “quirky tavern patrons” early on to the extent where none of them feel fleshed out enough for me to want to hang with them as friends, and the mystery plot (about a missing painting) feels a bit contrived.
But give the book time, because eventually everything falls into near perfection. Webb eventually gives all of his characters depth, complex emotions, and diverse needs. I think the problem is that I went into the book expecting Legends and Lattes, where I feel in love with the cast immediately. But Webb’s characters are actually more nuanced (and even internally contradictory, in a good way) than Baldree’s. The characters we first meet in the opening pages of Bard City Blues are not who these people really are; unlike most cozy fantasies what we see on the surface is not the entire story. Webb’s characters have an astounding amount of depth that you cannot help but to root for and fall for. Whether it is someone who wants to forge their own path, someone who wants to fall in love, or someone trying to right the wrongs of their past, when everything clicks in Bard City Blues it REALLY clicks.
The Kickstarter is going on right now, but the book won’t be released until September which is perfect because the entire time I was reading Bard City Blues I wished I was reading it on a cold, dark night. The story is set in winter and has those perfect late-year vibes. The book makes you want to curl up with a blanket, but with just enough of a darker sheen that is perfect for the autumn and early winter season. If you love those vibes in a book, Bard City Blues will make a great addition to your late-2023 TBR!
What I think surprised me most of all is how slowly and unexpectedly Bard City Blues burrowed itself into my heart. This is most definitely a personal experience, but it had a different impact on me than pretty much any other cozy fantasy I have ever read. Rather than a simple sense of warm fuzzies, this book elicited a sense of (perhaps contradictorily) calming melancholy. Bard City Blues is about a lot of things, but what I latched onto the most was its message about structural approval. That exact job title, that specific degree, that socially sanctioned form of approval – society tells, and perhaps even demands, that we need these things. Particularly in the United States, striving for these things is expected as a measure of personal and social success. But what if we realized these were not the goals of a life worth living? What if we were willing to let go of what people tell us we should be striving towards and instead focus on deeply human connections?
Gally’s entire life has been a series of demands and expectations. Her parents had strict expectations for her future, and none of them included becoming a bard. Once Gally decided to go her own way, playing music meant going to a prestigious academy, learning the “correct” way of making music, and entering into the “proper” musician’s guild. Playing music in a tavern, having her own personality, and making friends were not in the cards for her. But Gally finds this life unsatisfying, and the cast of strange and empathetic characters around her teach her that. Gally’s journey throughout Bard City Blues is one of self-discovery, of thriving not striving, and of shedding the arbitrary expectations that we place on ourselves.
What started as a book that I thought was just another by-the-numbers cozy fantasy, complete with a tavern, quirky side characters, and no real discernable plot slowly enveloped me into its world. What started as a book that I was kind of pushing myself to read ended up with me being disappointed that I wasn’t able to just spend a bit more time with these characters. Bard City Blues takes its time to an almost frustratingly degree in the middle, but the payoff is well worth Webb’s careful scaffolding.
Ultimately, this situates Bard City Blues somewhere between Legends and Lattes and Light From Uncommon Stars. It is a simple world with a group of characters that you simply want to hang out in combined but is also just plot-forward enough to give the book a bit of momentum.
Bard City Blues definitely wades around in the cozy fantasy tropes, but it brings just enough of itself and its own identity to carve out a nice niche within the genre. If you love cozy fantasy, jump right in. If you like the idea of cozy fantasy, but didn’t vibe with the fact that Legends and Lattes didn’t have enough plot, dip your toe into Bard City Blues. Give it 50% (it’s a short book so its not too much of a commitment!) and see if it works for you. You just might be surprised.
Concluding Thoughts: A worthy entry into the growing cozy fantasy genre, Bard City Blues starts off by trying to do too much to its detriment, but once everything locks into place it becomes a standout read. Nathaniel Webb populates this small, divey tavern with a bevvy of wonderful and deep characters that you’ll never want to let go. All of the cozy fantasy tropes are here, but Webb also injects just enough melancholy and emotional depth to keep it all feeling trite and contrived. I loved my time with Bard City Blues and cannot wait for the sequel!