Out in the distance beyond Halae’s Reef, a young girl spots a fleet of red-sailed ships that will forever change her life and that of her island community. This introduction is not unlike anything many have read in history books about colonization and Seth Dickinson’s “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” tackles the very tough questions of empire and all of its tangled implications.
The main character Baru Cormorant is introduced on the beaches of her island home, Taranoke, which is described by all accounts as a tropical paradise. Raised by a “huntress and a blacksmith and a shield-bearer,” Baru has a mother and two fathers as most children do on Taranoke. As those merchant ships dock on Baru’s island, her parents become keenly nervous of the way the Empire of Masks, a distant but powerful empire, begin to remake Taranoke: using paper money, hostile treaties, pestilence and their views on “hygiene” — a strict limit of one mother and father, with harsh punishments for “sodomites” and “tribadists.” Baru soon realizes that the only way to fight the Empire, or the “Masquerade,” is to become a part of it and is singled out by a Masquerade agent to attend one of their new schools where she is quickly identified as a savant. She is then sent to the far-flung region of Aurdwynn full of fractious dukes, duchesses and a rebellious population. During Baru’s time there, she is subject to scrutiny based on her ethnicity, covert attraction to women and her ultimate loyalties.
The most striking commentary while reading this book was its critique of empire. Baru wages a sort of bureaucratic violence on her enemies in her position as imperial accountant, even crashing the Aurdwynn economy to stop Duchess Tain Hu from rebelling against the Masquerade. The story told is not that much different from what most of us have read in history textbooks and I am most reminded of the British colonization of Africa. The Masquerade, an odd hybrid between the culturally prudish British Empire and the very meritocratic Chinese empires, is complex and Dickinson expertly crafts the methods of colonization the Masquerade uses as well as their sheer brutality in remaking the lands they conquered.
The story is not just a commentary on empire but also a story of profound searching. Baru embarks on her mission to redeem Taranoke but as I read, I found myself wondering what she had become. Though I found myself rooting for her when she succeeded and desperately hoping she would emerge intact, I constantly tried to understand her. I found myself wondering if she was still fulfilling her initial mission, especially toward the end as Taranoke becomes little more than a ghost of her former self. By the end of the 400-page novel, the reader has witnessed a profound transformation unlike anything I have read before.
Baru’s character is quite complex and her transformation from a naive girl to a hardened and calculated functionary in the Masquerade’s network in Aurdwynn is quite a feat. As she operates in the rigid spaces of the Masquerade’s higher management in Aurdwynn, she has to conceal her attraction to the “dangerously fascinating” Duchess Tain Hu of Vultjag, a small and poor duchy sandwiched in the Wintercrest mountains of northern Aurdwynn. The cruel Jurispotence, the chief law enforcement authority in Aurdwynn, which Baru has numerous interactions with, brutally persecutes those accused of crimes of “hygiene” making her existence in this environment all the more nail-biting and terrifying. Dickinson expertly crafts Baru’s character and moves through every political calculation she makes with sometimes surprising results, making this book quite a compelling read. Baru’s character undergoes a lot of trauma though this doesn’t stop her Machiavellian machinations and her quest to destroy the Masquerade, one way or another.
Full disclosure, I usually do not like fantasy books since I find them a bit too fantastical for my tastes. Nonetheless, when I was at the bookstore trying to find a new read (pre-quarantine, of course) the bookseller described this book as similar to Game of Thrones but a bit more focused. This book is gripping, and if this sounds like your type of read, there are two more in the series to look forward to. But reader beware, this is not a cheery book and instead forces the reader to consider tough questions and bear witness to a fascinating and intricate web of results.
Verdict: Seth Dickinson’s “Traitor Baru Cormorant” is a compelling and riveting experience as the reader is forced to consider the consequences of empire. Dickinson expertly chronicles Baru’s transformation begging the question of whether Baru is still trying to fulfill her goal of destroying the Masquerade. The novel and its fantasy world is viscerally complex, and I eagerly anticipate reading the next books in the series.