BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Baru Cormorant seeks to save her island home from a rapacious Empire by undermining it from the inside.
PROS: Excellent writing, strong and clear plotting. An important part of the genre conversation. An excellent map.
CONS: Sympathy with the main character difficult, uses to which diversity in the novel is put is questionable if not disheartening.
BOTTOM LINE: A brilliant first novel that is undercut significantly by its weaknesses.
The desire to avoid a cultural and imperial takeover of her island home leads a young woman to join the Empire she hates in Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a debut fantasy novel light on the fantastic elements but heavy on the nuts and bolts of governance, money, and the uses of power.
Baru Cormorant’s island home of Taranoke is slowly being drawn into the orbit of the Empire of Masks, a polity that seeks dominion and order and rectitude for everyone in the world. Everyone. Using trade, commerce ,cultural infiltration and other techniques to get a foothold on the islands, they slowly Empire-ize them until takeover is inevitable. Baru is brilliant and a prodigy at mathematics, and that brilliancy is recognized early by the Empire representatives on Taranoke. Where they see a future member of their apparatus, she sees an opportunity to find a way to stop the Empire’s takeover of her home from the inside. She is trained in the magical ways of accountancy and sent to the cold, hard, and discontent imperial province of Aurdwynn, where her position as Imperial Accountant dovetails with the harsh realities of the realpolitik situation on the ground.
The novel, when it’s firing on all cylinders, is an amazing piece of work. The plotting is like clockwork, with excellent pacing. Baru is a brilliant protagonist to follow, yet not a perfect one. Sometimes she makes the same mistakes again and again, but that only adds to her humanity, making her easy to relate to. Baru is a warrior and wielder of weapons of a different sort than your typical fantasy hero: She’s an accountant! The use of money and economics and wielding power are fascinating, and something that is underused in fantasy. It’s a smart novel, but not a gentle one. When the novel reaches for brilliance, it often hits its mark.
For me, the historical connections of The Traitor Baru Cormorant ran deep into the history of Empires on Earth. I was reminded of the British Empire, of course, with its world-spanning grasp and ambitions, especially on the seas. The use of goods and currency and cultural infiltration come straight out of things like the Opium Wars. Speaking of China, there’s a touch of the Imperial Chinese Bureaucracy, too, with the ruthless and cutthroat meritocracy of doing well in examinations as the gateway to success. The story of Taranoke itself, too, makes me think of the last days of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and the inexorable American push toward annexation.
Dickinson’s novel reminds me of K.J. Parker’s work (and the Riverside novels and stories of Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner), with its extremely light (if not non-existent) magic and fantastic elements. The fully fleshed out day-to-day minutiae and highly developed politics and political systems is very much like Parker, as is the idea of having someone like an accountant as a heroine. There’s even a duel that occurs within the novel itself. I was also reminded of the somewhat more fantastic Cithrin in Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series. I imagine a government or a bank that had both Cithrin and Baru running and handling it would be an economic and political force that would terrify the entire world with its brilliance.
The book has an amazingly good in-universe map that is clearly annotated and is used by the heroine herself. Far from being the typical “map of the world” or even map of Aurdwynn, it’s personalized and personable and it helps frame Baru as a character in her role as Imperial accountant.
Unfortunately, the weaknesses I found with the novel undermined all of its strengths and made it a frustrating read. Baru herself is often masked (following the metaphor and use of masks within the Empire itself) making it hard to know what she’s feeling inside and she’s often portrayed as cold and impenetrable. I sometimes felt that a game of Kriegspiel was being described (the chess variant where neither player can see the other’s moves) between two prodigies. The moves are brilliant, the plotting well paced, and the twists believable, but it feels almost too mechanistic. Even though I respected her as a character (and I’d totally want her on my team if I was taking on a large polity,) I couldn’t bring myself to fall for the character in any notable way.
The novel is delightfully diverse in terms of races and ethnicity, eschewing the obvious Western European model of appearance for the Empire and its satrapies for a much more broad palette, and the novel’s sexual diversity follows this pattern. The novel takes great pains, especially early on, to depict Baru as a product of an environment and island home where non-heteronormative sexuality is a fact of life. This makes the novel a strong part of the current conversation that genre fiction is having regarding these issues and the inclusion of different viewpoints and the aversion of simply falling to the same old defaults.
Given the Empire’s nature and concerns with breeding, however, a major theme of the book and a major focus of the Empire, these alternative mores and this diversity is due to be suppressed and quashed entirely, and any sympathy Baru has for them used as a potential weapon against her. “You will become us” is an unspoken but unmistakable goal of the Empire. For all of the diversity in the book, the message that the Empire has at the core of its DNA undercuts the book’s own argument for diversity. The Empire’s hatred of non heteronormative sexuality in particular makes them little more than a caricature, and that sexuality is only used as something to be destroyed distorts its power in the narrative. It’s as if the book includes these alternative perspectives mainly so they could be used as a target by the Empire. I can see how readers of non heteronormative sexuality, especially, will be both delighted to see it celebrated here at first, but then horrified to see it used as something to be suppressed and destroyed.
Overall, the Traitor Baru Cormorant is an amazing, rich, inventive, clever, yet extremely frustrating book to read.