Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: January 19, 2021
Tanya has worked at her tavern for most of her life. So, when her guardian dies, she expects to inherit it. Unfortunately, however, he forgot to fill out the paperwork. Faced with the prospect of losing the only life she has known, Tanya sets out on a journey to petition the queen to get her tavern back. Along the way, she will encounter a band of thieves, some unscrupulous soldiers, and a mysterious and magical feather. But Tanya is a tavern watch and she has seen it all. She will face any threat to reclaim what is hers.
Wench by Maxine Kaplan has a fascinating premise. The tavern wench, a fantasy trope typically overlooked and under-utilized, becomes the hero of her own story, rather than simply a character in the background. Tanya has worked at her tavern since she was eleven–and she’s good at it. So when her guardian dies without naming her as her heir, she sets off on a journey to petition the queen to reclaim her property. Though one might assume Tanya possesses no particular skills to help her succeed–no magic, no weapons training, no knowledge of politics or intrigue–Tanya demonstrates that working in a tavern has truly prepared her to deal with all kinds of people. With her wit, her confidence in her ability to adapt to any situation, and her no-nonsense attitude, Tanya demonstrates that she really is the heroine readers have been waiting for.
Wench admittedly does not offer very much new in the fantasy genre. Readers can expect to find the normal type of fantasy fare: a band of thieves, an elite college of sexist magicians, and a country less stable than it appears. But the novelty of Wench is not so much the story line as it is Tanya appearing in the starring role. It is deeply satisfying to watch an “ordinary” girl find herself in the middle of predicaments typically found in fantasy quests, and generally proving herself more than capable of meeting them. In some respects, Wench is really an extended defense of customer service workers. Tanya may not be trained in powerful magic or in any type of weapon, but she can read people, defuse tense situations, and react at a moment’s notice. It’s all about transferable skills.
As likable and entertaining as Tanya is, however, her world sadly leaves something to be desired. The magic system is never fully explained, nor are the court politics that Tanya finds herself embroiled in. Even the geography and history are sketchy at best. Readers who enjoy detailed worldbuilding will not find it here–the book relies primarily on Tanya to carry the weight of the story.
The pacing of the story is also uneven. Without giving too much of the plot away, I can say there seem to be three distinct “acts” of the story, with Tanya going on her quest in the first part, experiencing court in the second, and going on a mission in the third. The first act comprises the bulk of the story, leaving the second two acts little room for extended treatment. Readers may find themselves, like me, a little disappointed that court life does not receive more coverage. And, like me, they may be confused at the necessity of the third act at all. Tanya’s mission ultimately seems to be mainly a plot device for her to realize what she truly wants in life. But it is under-developed and leads to a rushed conclusion that ultimately feels unsatisfying.
I enjoyed Wench primarily because I loved Tanya’s character. Readers who are excited to see a tavern wench in the starring role may feel the same. However, a lack of detailed worldbuilding and uneven pacing prevent this book from being the truly phenomenal fantasy I hoped it would be.