This book is, in a word, gut-wrenching. It will make you sick to your stomach – but in all the right ways.
Young Baru Cormorant watches the Empire of Masks/Masquerade take over her homeland and so vows that she will learn their secrets and grow up to free her homeland from the inside. She is eventually sent to the province of Aurdwynn as Imperial Accountant, where she struggles to achieve the apotheosis needed to prove her savancy and acquire the power she needs to meet her goals.
Oh, and there’s also the part where she’s a homosexual in a world that has deemed “tribadism” an unhygienic sin.
I picked this book up initially because of the title: The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Seth Dickinson doesn’t mince words; he tells you exactly what you’re going to get. This book is about Baru and her self-appointed quest. It’s about all the ways, large and small, that she is a traitor – a traitor to her homeland, a traitor to the Masquerade, a traitor to Aurdwynn, a traitor to her friends, a traitor to her family, a traitor to her very feelings.
This book succeeds in large part for the same reason I loved City of Stairs – it’s got a compelling, riveting central character. (Sidebar: God bless the progress in fantasy fiction that has given me TWO fantastic primary female characters in the last two books I’ve read). Baru makes clever moves, walks into huge blunders and manipulates her way into power. She’s an accountant, of all things, and yet no less interesting for that as she uses facts and figures to trace the structures of imperial power. She’s a lesbian forced to hide her preferences to get what she wants (and the book’s exploration of that theme is heartbreaking in every possible way, both in her self-denial, her eventual capitulation and the consequences she reaps as a result). Baru is very very different from Robert Jackson Bennett’s Turyin Mulaghesh, but in no way less fascinating.
Other than Baru, however, it’s hard to get emotionally attached to the characters. Part of that is in the nature of the viewpoint; we’re seeing everything from Baru’s perspective, and Baru of necessity views each person in terms of potential strings and hidden masters. Even Tain Hu and Muire Lo, probably the two most substantial characters after Baru herself, are hard to really develop an emotional response for. It hinders some of the potential drama of the novel, as the heartless blows Baru metes out sometimes don’t have the power they could have.
The plot’s not bad though – after we get out of the weeds of Baru’s upbringing, it races along at a pretty fair clip until the end. What it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in style. You’re going to see the big plot “twists” coming from a mile away, but you’ll still enjoy reading them (at least, as much as you can when the death toll keeps spiraling higher).
Dickinson has also done a fairly good job of world-building. The story is mainly confined to one locale, but that locale is well realized and definitely has its own history and customs. We have yet to see Falcrest, center of the Masquerade, but I’m excited to see Baru go there in the forthcoming sequel.
Final verdict? A very good, well-written book that will definitely be on my re-read list when I decide I’ve spent too much money on books later this year.