Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

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I am conflicted. Not since I read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu earlier this year have I been so conflicted about to what extent I believed the book in question had succeeded in what it set out to do.

The titular Baru Cormorant grows up near the sea in the nation of Taranoke with her mother Pinion and her fathers Solit and Salm when the Empire of Masks—otherwise known as the Masquerade—comes to trade, and eventually to colonize. They do it quietly, and they do it thoroughly. The Masquerade brings a plague that wipes out the majority of the Taranoke people, leaving the country ripe for the picking. They bring many changes with them in the form of new roads, new medicines, and their own form of currency in the form of paper money that soon becomes the only accepted currency to be found. They also bring pseudo-scientific, eugenicist teachings about “hygiene”, including that correct, healthy unions are between one man and one woman, and that sodomites and tribadists are in need of—violent, sometimes deadly—correction.

Baru is only a child when the Masquerade comes to call. As an adult, having attended a Masquerade-founded school in the midst of Taranoke’s colonization and witnessed firsthand the methods by which the Masquerade assimilated the Taranoke people into Falcresti citizens, Baru is in a strategic position to cause change from within the ruling government of the Masquerade itself—and that’s exactly what she’s going to do, to free Taranoke. A savant with numbers, Baru is appointed to the position of Imperial Accountant to the nation of Aurdwynn, another Imperial conquest, one embittered by feuding dukes and duchesses who have yet to fully be brought under Imperial rule. There, Baru will have the power to stop a brewing rebellion from happening, or cast her lot with them. Can she actually go up against the Empire of Masks? What sacrifices will she make to save her homeland?

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, among other things, explores ideas of complicity and to what extent individuals are able to resist an overarching structure when they themselves are the product of that same structure. Baru willingly entered the Masquerade school to be educated in their culture, and as the Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn, she is beholden to the Masquerade’s ruling faction. Whether or not Baru attempts to instigate change inside or outside the system, she is beholden to the system that created her. When she fights for Taranoke or Aurdwynn’s sovereignty, is she truly doing so? Or is she, and has she always been, a tool of the Empire? In this case, a tool able to wield considerable economic power.

I’m not alone in saying that this is undoubtedly one of the strengths of of this book—the fact that Seth Dickinson wrote a tale of political intrigue and rebellion, and he did it through economics, and he made it interesting. Baru is a master economist, able to identify the myriad of ways in which she can exert control through her new position. She has the power to determine a rebellion’s success or failure through providing or withholding money, collapsing an entire nation’s monetary system, and so much more. (The only other instance in which I have been fascinated by economics is while listening “Cabinet Battle #1” in Hamilton and getting ridiculously invested in whether Hamilton can get his debt plan approved.) Not only is Baru incredibly smart for her age, having earned her position at age eighteen, she’s calculated and ruthless, turning each possibility into a transaction that will best guarantee a favorable outcome on her behalf.

And yet…

“When was the last time you took notice of a child?”

“Children pay no taxes.”

“Can you name a single ducal consort? Lyxaxu’s, perhaps?”

“I don’t bother with trivia.”

Baru has a devastating flaw—one that I adore— and it ruins her again and again. She sees herself as opposing a system, an empire, a structure of embedded codes and regulations. She doesn’t see herself as opposing humans. She sees no value or threat in the ties of marriage, kinship, or the potentiality thereof, meaning that when those humans suddenly appear to oppose her with pesky agendas rooted in factors Baru deems insignificant, she finds herself blindsided. In order to become the Empire’s pawn and fulfill her own agenda, Baru has had to operate for many years on logic and logic alone. Emotion and greed, either hers or other people’s, don’t enter into her analyses.

Baru’s flaw also affects the trajectory of her budding relationship with the Duchess Tain Hu, who’s my personal favorite character in this book. Tain Hu is gorgeous and crafty as Baru. Unlike Baru, she knows what it’s like to fight for freedom and to fail. And, in her own way, she is open and honest. Tain Hu slowly courts Baru, opening up to her, swearing allegiance, and follows Baru into battle to fight in her name. Meanwhile Baru, who was born in a family of two fathers but came of age steeped in cultural conditioning that same-sex attraction is abhorrent and unhygienic, and who  lost one of her fathers to the Masquerade’s ironclad laws on the matter, has to treat her own attraction towards women as a dagger in her back that could expose and depose her. Their relationship is positively agonizing in how glacially it develops, but it is meaningful, and it is worth it.

And now I’m going to spoil the ending, because I’d like the address the issue of Tragic Queers trope—I am not an individual for whom this trope personally affects in terms of seeing people like myself portrayed in media. I don’t want to spoil what exactly happens, beyond the fact that Tain Hu does die. I will go ahead and say that, given the parameters of the world-building regarding the Falcresti clinical abhorrence for any kind of same-sex attraction or behavior, and given the thematic threads of this particular story regarding complicity and subversion, that her death does make sense in the context of the story being told. In a very twisted way, the context in which Tain Hu’s death occurs ends up being a slap in the Masquerade’s face and a way for Baru to evade their control.

HOWEVER

I do not 100% buy the way in which Seth Dickinson wrote the Masquerade as possessing what felt like a Victorian-inspired view of sexuality and cleanliness (especially given the eugenics angle) when it seemed to me there was little explanation for the Masquerade to have such a noticeably historically-and-culturally specific mindset regarding those things. Moreover, there is very little explanation given either to why or how the Masquerade practices eugenics regarding the people of various races they colonize. Their views on homosexuality and race-based traits are inarguably connected, yet the latter plays almost zero role in the story being told. Which leaves the Masquerade’s intolerance for homosexuality standing on its own with little explanation as to why it’s so central to Falcresti cultural values and the Empire’s own sense of inherent dominance.

This strikes at my main problem with the way in which this book is written—for a book about colonized individuals attempting to overcome their own colonization, there is comparatively little space allotted to showing in what ways the Masquerade overrides Taranoke and Aurdwynn’s culture with their own, apart from the previously-mentioned enforcement of heterosexual relationships. I don’t even know much about the people and cultures of Taranoke and Aurdwynn prior to colonization. There are hints at earlier empires who used to rule these two nations and whose remnants remain in peoples’ physical appearances and spoken languages; otherwise Taranoke feels like “generic tropics country” and Aurdwynn is “generic feudal country with tough hunter/gatherer/fighter people in the north and rich/complacent/agriculture people in the south.” Because I know so little about these places, Aurdwynn especially, I felt that in turn I got little insight into what effect the Masquerade’s colonization has had on the people of Aurdwynn— how their daily lives, or their religious beliefs, or their legal rights, have been permanently altered. It’s understandable that, since we follow Baru’s viewpoint very closely, we wouldn’t get much of that insight into the specifics of Aurdwynn’s colonization because Baru doesn’t really know, nor does she care. Still, this lack undermines the book’s thematic bones. Alternately, that may be the point—the differences in individual peoples and cultures are irrelevant when the point of colonization is that one nation with its own culture, for whatever reason, believes it has the right to impose its rule, and its rules, on those who are not part of their nation.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an exceptionally compelling novel. The writing is visual and evocative, I loved both Baru and Tain Hu, and I found myself extremely emotionally invested in Baru’s outcome by the end of the book and really want to see what her next steps are going to be in the sequel. The book’s world-building and set-up still bothers me, and I remain unconvinced that the book completely succeeded in what it set out to do. But, more so than any other book I’ve read recently, it’s given me reason to sit down and really think about how stories are told and how they can be told effectively.

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One thought on “Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Reads of 2015 | Alive and Narrating

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