How far are you willing to go for revenge? Would you sacrifice your family? Your heritage? Your love? Your soul? That’s the question at the heart of Seth Dickinson’s bracing debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Baru is a precocious seven-year-old from the island nation of Taranoke, when the Empire of Masks arrived. First they came to trade their fiat currency for the island’s durable goods, then to establish schools for the island’s children, and then with laws to condemn the native culture as unclean, then with mysterious diseases to wipe out the population.
Baru was one of the lucky children to be accepted into the school and trained in the ways of the Imperial Masquerade, despite the concerns of her mother and fathers. She was soon taught that her multiple fathers were unhygienic sodomites and her own blossoming feelings towards her friend Aminata were unhygienic as well.
She was clever enough to realize that she was not in a position to rebel against the conquerors, however, so Baru buried her feelings of loyalty to her family and country and endeavored to become the best student the Masquerade produced, to become the Imperial Accountant for the Northern province of Aurdwynn.
Here is where Dickinson’s storytelling shines brightest Baru uses economics and accountancy to gain power, and Dickinson’s riveting descriptions of taxation, audits and currency manipulation make The Traitor Baru Cormorant a page-turner. Baru wields her fiduciary power with the deftness of Tyrion Lannister while navigating the court intrigue with the ability of Maia from Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor.
He also does an excellent job detailing how imperialism reshapes a culture and a person.
The story takes a grim turn, however, as Baru becomes involved in a rebellion, betraying her masters to overthrow the yoke of the Masquerade in Aurdwynn. Soon Dickinson is asking how far we are willing to go for vengeance, and Baru’s decisions become a lot uglier, and a lot more painful to read.
I’ve been burned out grimdark for a while now. I’m sick of morally questionable anti-heroes who wallow in blood and rape for the sake of being “gritty” or “realistic.” The genre has descended into parody in some cases, so I appreciate when an author can draw me into grimdark characters enough to want to watch their descent into atrocities without celebrating them. Indeed, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read this year.
This is not a happy book. It’s hard to watch a sympathetic child, who was taken away from her parents and condemned for her culture grow into an instrument of powers who destroyed her life in the first place. But Dickinson offers enough hope for me to stick around and see if Baru can find vengeance for her family and redemption for her soul. ~~ Michael Senft