Author: Seth Dickinson
Series: Baru Cormorant (#1)
Read: May 18th-19th
Release Date: September 15, 2015
Genre: political fantasy
In short: What to say about a book so good I’ve read it twice in the span of three months? Amazingly plotted, exquisitely written—if you’re looking for a gripping fantasy novel, this is it.
Goodreads: The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an epic geopolitical fantasy about one woman’s mission to tear down an empire by learning how to rule it.
Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up from the sand of her home and see red sails on the horizon.
The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They’ll conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She’ll swallow her hate, prove her talent, and join the Masquerade. She will learn the secrets of empire. She’ll be exactly what they need. And she’ll claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.
In a final test of her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. Aurdwynn kills everyone who tries to rule it. To survive, Baru will need to untangle this land’s intricate web of treachery – and conceal her attraction to the dangerously fascinating Duchess Tain Hu.
But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.
At the local bookstore where I go to college, the staff hangs up these cute little recommendation signs for their picks. One of those picks was The Traitor Baru Cormorant. I can’t remember what it said, but I feel like I need to personally thank whoever wrote that recommendation. Because this book is an all-time favourite, already.
≫ THE PLOT:
“Aurdwynn has one great habit, Your Excellence, one constant touchstone, no matter who rules.” Her secretary hesitated over the map, his own fingers half-curled, as if of half a mind to draw her hand away from a flame. “Rebellion.”
Baru Cormorant is just a clever girl on the island of Taranoke until the Empire of the Masks colonises her home. She’s pulled into their school, and their world—a world of conquer by trade, cunning political strategy, rigid meritocracy, and chilling eugenics. Even as the Masquerade proclaims her a genius, she strives to succeed within their system, so that she can finally have the power to save her homeland. But her plans are cut short. The empire decides to test her skills by sending her to Aurdwynn, a foreign land already colonised, yet still prone to testing the empire’s strength. Baru must navigate the treacherous waters of Aurdwynni politics, but she must be careful not to be drawn to the heart of the rebellion itself.
The plot is well-paced, aside from a slight lull right after Baru arrives in Aurdwynn. But pacing aside, it blows my mind that this story could’ve been woven so stunningly. I’m running out of adjectives here. The things that happen—the decisions that are made, the tragedies that befall Baru—are so carefully, precisely timed. Actually, it’s not just the things that happen. One of my favourite things about this book is the fact that Baru is such an active part of her own story. Even when Baru is reacting, it feels like she’s acting. It’s hard to see where the plot ends and where Baru’s character begins, honestly, and that’s another strength of this novel. But more on that later.
≫ THE SETTING:
Even before I reread the book, I could have recited the names of the thirteen dukes and duchesses of Aurdwynn. That’s how well-constructed the world of this book is. And it’s not just geography or history, although there’s plenty of both. It goes into the very cultures of the lands the characters inhabit. There’s probably more diversity in the first chapter of this book than in several completed series I’ve read before. For example, in Baru’s native Taranoke, families are made of a mother and two fathers. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of a book where polygamy is part of the culture! With culture comes cultural differences, and Dickinson exploits those admirably. There’s language barriers and different dressing styles, all the way to different opinions on homosexuality and aforementioned polygamy. The setting is part of the story both culturally and geographically, and I can count on one hand the number of other books I’ve seen that in.
≫ THE PROTAGONIST:
If there is rebellion in my heart, a rebellion of huntress mothers with man-killing spears come to find their vanished husbands, well, I must be ready with acid and steel mask.
Baru is the heart of this story, and she’s so well-formed a character that I feel as though I’ll pass her on the street someday. She’s determined, ambitious, clever—but not so clever that she’s unlikeable, and not so clever that challenges don’t pose a problem to her. Her conflicts and her desires are clear to the reader, and it’s impossible not to empathise with her situation. She’s not a physical fighter; she fights with her mind, and it’s fascinating to watch her decision process unfold. And also, she’s a lesbian, in a fantasy novel!
And the best part about the way Baru’s written—what makes the plot work so well—is that her fatal flaw is emphasised, again and again, in her mistakes. You know she’s not infallible.
≫ THE OTHER CHARACTERS:
…we are not free. Not even when we march beside them, nor even when we lead them. Freedom granted by your rulers is just a chain with a little slack.
Every single supporting character, I can promise you, makes an impact. I don’t know what kind of talent this is—or where I can acquire some of it—but Dickinson somehow manages to breathe life into all the major players in the story. From Baru’s reserved but good-humoured secretary Muire Lo all the way to the nobility of Aurdwynn, they all stand out. And I have a soft spot for them all! I especially love the way the dukes and duchesses are written. They all have their own agendas, faults, and dangerous tendencies.
≫ OF VILLAINS:
Mother, why do they come here? Why do we not go to them?
Why are they so powerful?
The Empire of the Masks is the most terrifying antagonistic force I’ve read about in a long time. Yes, they’re formidable and their tactics are bone-chilling, but that’s still not what makes them frightening. It’s how believable the empire is. Looking at our history, can I imagine that a foreign power would ruthlessly conquer by trade and tear cultures apart? Guess what, I don’t have to imagine it. It’s happened. Add to that the empire’s disturbing edicts on eugenics, their experiments with human breeding (?!), and their really horrifying punishments for homosexuality… yeah, I wanted Baru to tear them apart.
≫ THE ROMANCE:
Her nearness summons sedition in Baru’s chest.
It’s the definition of slow burn. Baru falls for the alluring, fierce Duchess Tain Hu, one of the most dedicated rebels. I loved the complicated dynamics of their relationships, and how they grow to trust each other over the course of the rebellion. Tain Hu is the noble we see most of all the Aurdwynni, and I loved her character just as much as I’m not going to sit here and pretend they’re the perfect couple to read about if you want happy LGBT rep—their relationship is pretty much doomed from the start. And I know that’s a turn-off for lots of LGBT folks who want to see more positive representations of themselves in the media. But I’d encourage you to give it a shot, because two women, together, in a fantasy novel? Not written creepily? Both openly admitting they’re into women? It’s pretty significant.
≫ TO SUMMARISE:
Political fantasy is maybe my favourite genre of all time, so it was basically guaranteed that I’d love this book. But if you’re a fantasy reader, you’ll enjoy this book without question. It’s not dense, it’s so engaging, and it’s just all-around such a heart-stopping story. Now, where can I get the next book?