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Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (An Exploration by D.C. Stewart)


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OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I do not think I have ever read a book with a more appropriate title, nor one so multi-layered, as Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Before even cracking the cover, a reader knows that this person, this Baru, will betray someone. They do not know the extent of the betrayal, nor who or why it will come about, but it colors this character immediately, and it is upon learning that she is the protagonist that something occurs to a reader - this person is not to be trusted. The unreliable narrator is a common trope in fiction, but not often is it made so transparent right from the start.

But Baru is about as transparent as a brick wall, and after nearly 400 pages, I was left as puzzled by her as I was from the beginning.

The story of The Traitor Baru Cormorant is one familiar to any of us prescient about U.S. history. A large empire invades the rest of the world, bringing with it disease and economy, and gentrifies it. Dickinson places a particular emphasis on the economy portion of this takeover, stressing the Falcresti Empire’s ability to replace foreign currency with its own, and thus control all trade, as its means to success. Money is every bit as insidious as the plagues that the Masquerade (a nickname for the Empire, so given because their soldiers wear expressionless masks into battle) sows amongst less civilized populations and likely kills nearly as many. Baru Cormorant is a young girl from Taranoke when the story begins, and she watches the Masquerade invade and take over her beloved homeland without so much as a battle. Determined early on to somehow topple this regime, she demonstrates an out-of-the-ordinary genius and is noticed by one of the most powerful men of Falcrest who just happens to be posing as a merchant in her local market. She is fast tracked through the education system of the Masquerade, and upon graduation is shipped off to quell rumors of rebellion in northern Aurdwynn.

Baru is a difficult character to love or hate. As the novel progresses, we watch her plot and maneuver in ways that even the blackhearted might find a little squeamish. She does so, ultimately, for the love of her homeland. To Baru, any means justify the recovery of Taranoke, and this is where we see the true nature of the book’s title. Baru is The Traitor to everyone but herself, and it is a nerve- and mind-wracking game that she plays in juggling all the many masks that she is forced to don and shed as she plots her way into the heart of the Empire. In the end, I could respect Baru Cormorant for being one of the most cunning and manipulative characters I have ever read, but I could never like her. As book two of this series would suggest, Baru is a monster in all but appearance.

I take notes while I am reading, and as I was reading through The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I kept writing down questions, as though I were asking Seth Dickinson why this was happening, or where was this character while all of this was playing out. By the last page of this book, my questions had been answered, every one, and I am unsure whether or not I am impressed by Dickinson’s ability to sow confusion or angered by it. Part of the reason for this confusion lies in the somewhat un-satisfying conclusion to Baru’s betrayal of the Aurdwynni rebellion. There is no doubt that this floored me and that I did not see it coming (despite the book’s title). However, after a battle scene that reads like “The Song of Roland,” with all of its tempo and lyricism, Baru’s escape seems like a deflated balloon. She rides away, with a half-hearted chase by Duke Oathsfire, and then washes up on a personal island with a malady that removes half the world from her sight.

Because of the method of narration here, we are never able to see what Baru is actually thinking, and further, because of Dickinson’s unwillingness to ever show any transparency with this story, it is not feasible that such an ending could have the emotional impact that it deserves. The portion with Tain Hu on the island did have that, and it is raw and painful, but aside from that we do not feel a true sense of betrayal from Baru. Perhaps in the end, when the series is wrapped up and we see whether or not Baru Cormorant has toppled an Empire, when we see what lies behind the mask and whether it was worth all of this pain and strife, perhaps then an emotional anvil will descend and leave us all flattened. Seth Dickinson’s first novel is more than good enough to hold out for that.

CONCLUSION: Despite some misgivings about the book, there is no doubt that The Traitor Baru Cormorant is something special. It is unique in fantasy literature, and in literature as a whole. I have never read a book with such geopolitical maneuvering, the kind that puts such hornet’s nests like A Game of Thrones to shame, nor one that uses currency and economic control so much to its benefit. Dickinson’s prose splits between the workmanlike and the poetic while never firmly establishing itself in either, but it works.. His use of sexual politics is also fascinating and deeply human. In short, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an eye-opening experience, fresh and bold, and sets a course for Baru Cormorant that is both thrilling and terrifying.

2 comments:

Kellie Doherty said...

Ooo, thank you for this review of what looks to be a really interesting book!

Anonymous said...

Excellent review.
I really liked this book.

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