07 December 2015

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant isn't my only review of a story of revolution and rebellion this week, because three of the four tales on Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor, Volume One are just that. Check out my review!

Hardcover, 399 pages
Published 2015
Acquired October 2015
Read December 2015
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

I'm facebook friends with the editor of this book, otherwise it probably would have passed me by. But the more I read, the more obsessed I became, the more I wanted to own it because it deals with a question I am increasingly becoming interested in: to reword Audre Lord, can you use master's tools to tear down master's house? The Traitor Baru Cormorant is about an empire that absorbs other cultures, and what you do when you're one of the absorbed; young Baru Cormorant elects to be the best possible member of the Empire of the Mask she can be, to amass all the power that is possible so that she can use that power to free her people.

I wanted to love this book, and I would say I merely liked it a lot, which is unfair, as it is very good. Part of the problem is one of perspective: I feel like there are times where we are told that Baru is a certain way, rather than feel it ourselves, but part of this problem is by design, I think, as Baru does not always have much access to her own feelings. It's an amibitious novel, taking in Baru's early childhood, as her "native" way of life is dismantled through foreign education; her posting as Imperial Accountant to the distant province of Aurdwynn (like her homeland, a nation absorbed into the Masquerade), where she begins to trace a rebellion in the ledgers; and what comes after that, which I'm loathe to give away because part of the joy of this book was that it didn't quite follow the path that I had imagined. Baru is climbing toward power, yes, but not always in the way you might anticipate.

This is a book about the tools of empire: of politics, and economics, and culture. The functioning of the Masquerade is where the book always rang the most true-- the Masquerade is cunning, and it pulls apart the cultures of those it encounters. But it doesn't quite chew them up and spit them out; rather, those cultures adapt to the Masquerade in the ways that they can, some of which the Masquerade approves of, some of which it suppresses, and some of which it tolerates out of necessity. It is evil, but it is not Evil. This is the kind of sophisticated empire that operates in the real world, not the fantasy version of millions of orcs/stormtroopers/demons/clones marching across the landscape. Though it has a military, its tools are more varied than that.

The sense of history is always strong here, too, almost too strong as I sometimes got lost. But these nations aren't monolithic; they're all made up of different cultures and different ethnic groups and different races, and different characters have different attitudes to those histories. All of these things impact the attitudes and events of the present.

I liked the characters a lot, too; these are sharply drawn people in the midst of all this politicking. It would surprise no one who knows me that my favorite from Muire Lo, the assistant to the Imperial Accountant, an efficient, thoughtful, long-suffering informant. But he is one of many who move through this complicated world.

The end-- not to give too much away, I hope-- is painful, as it reshapes much of what you have seen before and it brings Baru's character into a sharper focus. Seriously, it's painful. I'm pretty sure there's a sequel coming, and I really want to read it, but part of me wishes there wasn't because what an ending this would be if there wasn't.

Empire is terrifying.

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