The Traitor Baru Cormorant
September 14, 2016 1:45 PM - by Seth Dickinson - Subscribe

In Seth Dickinson's highly-anticipated debut The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a young woman from a conquered people tries to transform an empire in this richly imagined geopolitical fantasy.

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire's civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it's on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.

But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.
posted by quaking fajita (11 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This book totally jerked me around in the worst (best?) possible way. I knew exactly how it was going to end from the very beginning, (I mean, it starts with 'This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.') but was hooked enough to keep reading the whole way. This is also the only fantasy novel I have ever read that includes hyperinflation and futures contracts as plot points.

The label of fantasy is also interesting because the book includes no magic (minus some eyebrow-raisingly effective brainwashing) or fantastical creatures.

Dickinson originally published a short story in 2011 at **warning warning major plot spoilers, seriously this gives away the whole thing** Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I'm interested at how little changed between the short story and the novel, except for some reason the name of Aurdwynn.

A sequel, titled The Monster Baru Cormorant, is in the works, although Dickinson has commented about the difficulties in writing a second book:

I wrote this book, everyone seems to like it more or less as a piece of craft, and it succeeds by being focused, scalpel-sharp, driving, lonely, brutal. It's a book about hard choices, loss, sacrifice. Giving up human connection in the name of the long war against injustice.
And everything's part of that. The structure, the layout of the sentences, the pacing, the restricted POV — even, as you've pointed out ably with respect to other books, what the book chooses to ignore, its disregard for family and friendship. All this was deliberate choice to echo the themes. (Characters even challenge Baru on her contempt and disregard for parts of life, and how it will bite her.)
But I don't want to do that again! I want to write a book that does what a sequel should do — it complicates the logic of the first installment, challenges it, makes it unfold and crane towards its own blindspots. I want more perspectives, I want characters who care about domestic life and small things, I want characters who would put friendship first or who see the world as dominated by kindness and compassion, not the calculus of power. And I want all these characters to challenge each other in complicated, emotional ways — even as they become necessary to each other too.
I did a draft that achieved that. A bunch of people learned to trust each other, heal their wounds, and make a home. But I lost all the pacing and drive. So I'm trying to figure out a way to unify the two...which is hard. Hopefully next go...
I just don't want to let down all the people who've loved this first book. I want something with the same fire.

Finally, some awesome Tain Hu fantart.
posted by quaking fajita at 2:08 PM on September 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have not (and will not) read this book, but a friend of mine wrote a great analysis of it that made it really clear to me both why people loved it and why it's not for me. (The reviewer is a Byzantinist, which turns out to be a relevant specialty.)
posted by restless_nomad at 4:04 PM on September 14, 2016

The novel was good enough that I'll wait for the sequel—it doesn't have to be on the yearly plan like Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch novels.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:07 PM on September 14, 2016

It was certainly interesting, albeit depressing as fuck. I debated whether or not to read it for a long time because of that.

I can't help but think that even at paying the price of her own soul and body and mental integrity, Baru's not going to end up making a damn bit of difference towards her former home in the end. Power corrupts, she'd still have to convince the entire rest of the council to do her bidding, social mores are huge, etc. But then again, I'm not a believer that one can change things from the inside, especially in a huge corrupt bigoted organization.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:28 PM on September 14, 2016

I can't help but be really excited by fantasy like this, Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin series, and the politics-wonk end of K.J. Parker's work, like The Folding Knife, The Company or Sharps. Even Pratchett's Going Postal and Making Money It's like these authors are (or were) actually imagining what might happen in the real revolutions - socio-economic revolutions that change worlds irreparably. They hinge on bank loans, fiat currency, emancipation, diplomacy or voting, and massed battles and glorious heroes are revealed as hollow reflections of the real powers at work in the world.

Yes, the story of Baru Cormorant is depressing, and her grand plan for the destruction of her enemies only ends up being co-opted, but I think that's true of every radical plan: the powers-that-be got there by virtue of controlling situations and adapting to them, always profiting. It's remarkable in this book that Baru's successes and failures in finance and politics have the same gut-punching impact as the violence.

A+ will continue to read whenever the next one arrives.
posted by prismatic7 at 11:38 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

God, I loved this book. It was among my favorite two or three of last year and I was disappointed that it didn't make the Hugo nominee list.

It's been long enough since I've read it that I'm not really equipped to discuss it the way I would like. Ideally, I'd enjoy something like, say, two seminars on it while everyone reads it. Ah, well.

I'm right there with you, prismatic7, in comparing this to TDatC and some of Parker's stuff in the sense you mention. But I especially enjoy and appreciate this kind of book within the context of the critique of imperialism and colonialism, which brings to mind Samatar's A Stranger in Olandria -- which I think is among the very best SFF novels in the last ten years.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:48 AM on September 15, 2016

I have read this twice, but the most recent time was still some months ago. I may be mistaken, but I was left with the impression at the end that Baru had not actually been coopted by the Empire. It seemed like their plan was to test her with the Aurdwynn situation. If she was really naive, she would be seduced by the rebels, but it would serve the Empire's ends by giving them an excuse to use the military to suppress the rebellion and sideline or dispose of all the troublesome dukes. If she were to remain loyal to the Empire, but harbor a shred of humanity in her soul, she would be seduced by Tain Hu, which the Empire would use to control her on the secret council. What they did not count on was that she would end up in the secret ruling cabal and no one would have a lever by which to ensure her loyalty. Everyone in the cabal has almost unlimited executive authority, and they keep each other in check via mutually assured destruction, except nobody has any more lethal secrets or captive lovers to hold over Baru. The series of letters at the end seem to hint that she is proceeding carefully with her own plans, for example contacting her brainwashed soldier to conduct a secret diplomatic mission, and promoting her friend in the navy and suggesting that they should meet to have a chat about "the mutability of government."
posted by rustcrumb at 10:25 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I saw it coming, every step, and yet...

Baru's greatest flaw, her tendency to think of people as pieces and not players, almost get her so many times - but she learns that.
And her other great flaw not realizing the forms power takes.
Sharing a bed, having children, love and blood - that's power.
Standing in the line, shield to shield, and keeping your men there by word and example - that's power too. Baru seems to understand this and must learn how to use it.
Baru disdains setpiece battle but knowing when to commit reserves, when to retreat, when and where to make a stand, that is power too....
When Duke Lyxaxu and his plainly dressed horsemen mount the Henge, I thought it was the end, he knows, but how?
If he could see it can the paramount masters see it?
Baru could not be the first...

I was thinking of the imperial republics in our history and how they fell. I'm looking forward to see what The Monster Baru Cormorant has in store.
A Prince of the north, a candidate rival, and an assassin who may or may not be controlled.

Can't just free Taranoke, as long as the Masquerade exists, it will come back...
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:32 PM on June 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

The secret design of The Traitor Baru Cormorant Seth Dickinson
In Conclusion

Junot Diaz writes, in an interview that’s haunted me for years:

in the work of, say, Morrison, or Octavia Butler, we are shown the awful radiant truth of how profoundly constituted we are of our oppressions. Or said differently: how indissolubly our identities are bound to the regimes that imprison us. These sisters not only describe the grim labyrinth of power that we are in as neocolonial subjects, but they also point out that we play both Theseus and the Minotaur in this nightmare drama.

And that’s all you need, really: the central conflict of the book is the Masquerade’s attempt to condition Baru into compliance, while Tain Hu pulls the other way (and oh there is a lot to say about Tain Hu, but I’ll try to control myself).

This conditioning operates on the reader too.What happens at the end of the book? Is Baru triumphant, or defeated? Has she subverted the whole Masquerade machine by taking over their stories, or in enacting them, has she become compliant?

That’s up to you to decide.

But remember the Masquerade’s trick with the prisoners. Allow them to escape, and then crush their hope just when they’ve embraced freedom. Repeat. Repeat. Until the prisoner rejects escape even when it’s offered. This is the Masquerade’s design on Baru, and it is also what the Masquerade hopes to do to the reader: see this story? See it happen again and again? It’s inside you now. It’s part of you. We have literally carved it into your brain. There is no hope to ever be free of it.

This is what cultural narratives, like the three I’ve outlined above, do to us. On some level we begin to believe them even if we consciously reject them. They still have power. So:

Is there still hope? Can Baru win?

These are hard questions, maybe the hardest. But they are also the questions that inhabit our lives. Every day we have to choose what we’re willing to sacrifice to survive. Do we acquiesce to life in a state that assassinates its own citizens, but provides us with peace and security? Do we drive our car, contributing to ecological devastation? Do we buy in (yet again) to a global system of exploitation and injustice, if it gets us cheap goods and a job?

We do these things because we must. The alternative is to become ineffective.

But perhaps we don’t always see how these choices change us.

So: those were my secrets. I didn’t write the book only to say these things, but I did write with them in mind. It’s up to you to say if it succeeds.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:41 PM on June 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

quaking fajita: "A sequel, titled The Monster Baru Cormorant, is in the works, although Dickinson has commented about the difficulties in writing a second book:"

I get why he would write it, but I feel like things would have been better left as a standalone. The ending is more devastating if Baru is left after all her betrayals, and we don't know if she ever gains anything from them.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:50 PM on February 4, 2018

Just finished this yesterday. That ending... Wow did not entirely see it coming. Looking forward to next book.
posted by supermedusa at 3:35 PM on October 3, 2020

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