A barbarian island girl has become a gifted administrator of the Empire of Masks. But to prove her loyalty, Baru must subdue a country that kills everyone who tries to rule it. She will do whatever it takes to succeed. Because only a trusted servant of the Empire can bring it crashing down.
Yes, you, right there. Stop.
How come I never really heard about The Traitor Baru Cormorant?
Sure, it was a 2015 release, which is just before I started book blogging, so perhaps you all did talk about it and I just jumped aboard the good ship BookTwitter a few months too late to hear you. My LibraryThing cohorts were a small group; they couldn’t read everything. But I don’t recall The Traitor Baru Cormorant even being in contention for awards in 2016, which is frankly criminal. And I don’t see it cropping up on Top Ten Tuesdays and the like.
What’s that? It’s because you hadn’t read it either?
Oh, friend. You want to. Trust me.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is hands-down one of the all-time best fantasy books I’ve ever read.
Will fight for it.
Let me tell you why.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a magnificently written fantasy about the evils of colonialism and the lengths one young woman will go to fight it. It’s utterly engrossing: a tricksy, winding tragedy of infiltration and treachery (the clue is in the name) with vibrant, complex characters and intricate world-building.
You know I have a soft spot for protagonists with unusual professions. Here the focus is on the Empire’s civil service: the bureaucracy that moulds its overseas possessions in its image and to its benefit. And our heroine is an accountant.
Baru Cormorant grew up the daughter of a fierce warrior and her two husbands on an island of hunters and fishers and polyamorous freedom. Taranoke trades with the Empire of Masks. Taranoke knows that the Empire has conquered nations greater than itself. But somehow, Taranoke doesn’t fear the Empire’s ships or mistrust its representatives – until the day they seize power.
Clever Baru Cormorant is given a place at the Empire’s boarding school; a chance to better herself – a chance, perhaps, to leave Taranoke and help govern the Empire in time. The civil service exams level the playing field, giving equal opportunities even to island barbarians with unhygienic customs (the Empire is hysterically and repressively homophobic).
But the Empire cannot change who Baru is at heart. It cannot trick her into trading her grief and rage at her father’s disappearance for personal advancement. It cannot stop her from desiring the women she is drawn to, no matter how great the risk. And it cannot offer her any opportunity so great that it seems an acceptable substitute for her defining ambition: to free her people and destroy the Masquerade.
The only question is what she is willing to do to achieve her goal.
We meet Baru as a precocious child. We see what the Empire crafts her into; and we join her on the cusp of adulthood as she enters the civil service – sent to another troublesome possession to bring a rebellious province to heel once and for all. She is our window onto the proceedings from start to finish: a brilliant savant, but also naive and uncertain, fearful yet determined – and ruthless in her single-minded devotion to the task at hand.
One of the things I really appreciated about Seth Dickinson’s achievement here (and oh hell, this is a debut and it is so accomplished) is the way he brings his spiky, sharp-edged characters to life. These people don’t want you to like them – Baru doesn’t care if you like her. They spring off the page with their own ambitions and own interior worlds that we can only guess at through Baru’s devious eyes. Being likeable and wanting to be a liked is a weakness in this heartless world. Everyone is in it for power, and sufficient influence to be untouchable.
Nobody is untouchable.
Another thing I loved is how much depth there is to the world-building. Each country has a sense of culture and history. This isn’t unusual in fantasy novels, of course, but authors don’t always achieve a convincing impression of age and development: it’s easier to define a vibrant now than convey a sense of centuries (or millennia) of history and change. Aurdwynn is a complex tapestry of ethnicities and past invasions, different cultures intertwining – and competing – under its latest rulers. The Empire itself is a relentless colonial machine, oiled in blood and tended to by its armed forces, bureaucracy and spies. Or so it seems: the name the Masquerade is well given; there’s more to the Empire’s leadership than meets the eye.
Seth Dickinson unspools his world-building as carefully as his plot to prevent either from overwhelming you. The narrative is outrageously deft and utterly manipulative. You will be torn in pieces, hopes twisted and feelings exploited at every turn. It isn’t just devastatingly good – it’s devastating, full stop.
Because you should know going in: this is a difficult read.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant hovers on the fringes of grimdark: the Empire does not hesitate to entrap, to torture, and to kill. It deliberately sets friends and family against one another – divide and conquer – and it’s happy to buy loyalty (or at least compliance) with guilt and shame. It’s every bit as horrific as the Hexarchate, without the unexpected socially liberal attitudes.
And this is a tale of the Empire’s agents – Baru included – and their efforts to serve it. It repeatedly asks the question of how far Baru is willing to go; and she always has an answer.
And she’s horrifyingly good at what she does.
Whether you love or hate this book may well boil down to how you feel about Baru’s choices. I couldn’t necessarily like Baru, but the story is far too well told for me not to empathise with her and feel ripped to shreds by the choices she must make. That she makes these choices in spite of seeing the Empire for what it is – and in full cognisance of what they will mean for other people – is why the sequel is called The Monster Baru Cormorant.
And I for once can’t wait to read it.
With many, many thanks to Maryam of The Curious SFF Reader for finally getting this off my vague TBR and on to my buddy-reading-it-right-now list!