The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth J. Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a kick to the guts, in all the best ways.

The book is about Baru Cormorant, a young woman whose small nation is undergoing colonisation by the Masked Empire. The Masked Empire brings medicine, roads, wealth, but follows strict laws of eugenics: it recognises families consisting only of one father and one mother, and arranges breeding of humans to bring out the best “racial” characteristics. As a child, Baru is sent from her mother and two fathers to one of the Empire’s new schools, where she displays prodigious talent in economics and mathematics. She hatches a plan to rise through the Empire’s ranks and free her people from within. But first she must overcome the Empire’s test: to bring order as Imperial Accountant in another of its colonised countries. There, the dukes are planning their own rebellions, her every move is reported back to the Empire, and trust seems impossible.

Reading The Traitor is like running a marathon. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tense reading a book before, and definitely not for such an overwhelming chunk of it. As soon as Baru steps into the role of Imperial Accountant, she becomes surrounded by people who she absolutely can’t trust, and who absolutely can’t trust her, and yet it’s impossible to get anywhere without at least pretending to do so. A good part of the book involves her and the other important players testing each other’s loyalty and trying to trap each other into revealing incriminating information. The thing is, even if the person passes the loyalty tests, Baru can’t really be sure if it’s true or if they’re trying to lull her into a false sense of security… Consequently, tension and stakes are raised by Chapter 3, and remain consistently high till the last few chapters, where they somehow manage to crescendo.

The plots upon plots are thus complicated, but never overwhelmingly so. This is helped by the well-defined major side characters. Although their goals can be unclear, their personalities remain relatively stable and broadly painted: the cold and calculating Xate Yawa, the boisterous and slightly naive Duke Unuxekome, the loyal, wolfish, and passionate Duchess Vultjag. In stark contrast, I wasn’t sure if I understood Baru correctly until near the very end of the book. She’s a fantastic character: very cold, pragmatic, capable of hard choices, yet at the same time undeniably driven primarily by passion and love.  Baru’s not necessarily likable – some of her choices might be unforgivable to readers – but she’s certainly sympathetic and fascinating to follow.

In terms of themes, I found the exploration of colonialism and the “correct” ways to tear down power structures thought-provoking. Baru’s choice of working with the Empire to take power for herself and her people is constantly second-guessed, both by herself and the people around her. How much of herself does she lose every time she follows the Empire’s commands? But is it even possible to defeat them without working within their confines? The matter is further complicated by the fact that the Empire is not wholly evil – only because of its laws is Baru, a commoner, able to disregard bloodlines and rise in power based on her intelligence alone. Yet because who she loves is unacceptable to the Empire, that power can be taken away with one wrong step, regardless of her intelligence.

(As a side-note, straight-up romance is not a big part of the book, but it’s certainly written very well. I started silently screaming Please kiss!! at Baru and the woman she develops feelings for part-way through the book. Those interactions, charged with both desire and the necessity to be discreet, are in my opinion just as tense as Baru facing off against people who want her dead.)

The final thing I’d like to mention is the prose, which I thought was great. Fitting for the story, the book’s written in an… oblique way. The narration is very tightly centred on Baru; her thoughts and feelings, as well as her descriptions of other characters and events, are often given via slightly indirect imagery or are abruptly cut off. This isn’t one of those books with long luscious descriptions, but puzzling through to complete Baru’s thoughts and impressions felt extremely rewarding. A large part of it consists of dialogue, generally a little stilted and formal as it involves characters maneuvering around each other politically, and excellently done.

In short, although it’s only January I think I’ve already found one of my top reads of 2018. I saw the ending coming part-way through the book, and I straight-out sobbed, hand over mouth, through the last chapter anyway. Book 2, The Monster Baru Cormorant, should be coming out in October 2018 and I absolutely can’t wait.

Recommended for:

  • Fans of political fantasy
  • Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire (politics) or N.K. Jemisin (sociopolitics)
  • Fans of more realistic fantasy
  • People interested in unusual (cold, calculating) protagonists
  • People interested in explorations of colonialism
  • People searching for great LGBT characters and themes
  • No, seriously, if you like political fantasy with way more care placed on economics and realistic revolutions than usual, this is the #1 book for you
  • Fans of romance fantasy




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