I’ve been following along with the Sword and Laser book club for a while now, so I was probably about as excited as the podcast hosts when they announced that they would be reading a very new fantasy book for the month of October – Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a fantasy novel about a young girl who wants to overthrow the empire that has colonized and destroyed the culture of home. Baru is a very intelligent child, and asks probing questions about the nature of the new people who have come to trade with the people of her home nation. Trade, of course, is only the start of the interactions between the empire (commonly called the Masquerade), and the people on her home island of Taranoke. Baru is aware of the problems that the empire will bring to her home, and vows to find a way to stop them. She is chosen to attend the empire-sponsored school, where she is an intellectual prodigy, and earns a position as an accountant in another of the empire’s holdings. While there, Baru uncovers the plot for a rebellion, and must choose when the time to strike out against the empire is right.
There are a lot of things I really loved about this book. The first section of this book, when the empire was taking over Taranoke, was heartbreaking and beautifully written. The reader was given the perfect amount of space to take in what was happening to the people of Taranoke, without the revelation feeling either too graphic or too cold. Anyone who has ever studied any sort of history of colonization could have seen the disaster coming, and also known there wasn’t anything to stop it. I also really liked the general concept for the book – a woman on a mission to bring down an empire from the inside. It is an interesting revenge story and provides a great framework for intricate political plots full of intrigue, double-crossing, and betrayal. I also absolutely loved the very end of the book. I thought the way the afterward was presented in the form of letters was brilliant, and succinctly tied up any loose ends that may have been left at the end of the story.
All that being said, there were, however, a lot of things that I thought could have been better about this book. Much of this book focuses on the time that Baru spends as accountant, and the rebellion she must deal with in that position. This meant that much of the book was political and economic discussions being held between one or two characters at a time. Now, I’m as excited about a good cost-benefits analysis as the next reader, but I feel that this hindered the world building and that is made the “intrigue” not quite as intriguing as it could have been. I also think that it was probably more of a let down because the introduction to the book was so brilliant. At a certain point I stopped reading because I was enjoying it, and was reading it because I felt I needed to get it finished. There were a lot of moments of dialogue where I felt I could have mentally swapped names of the characters in the scene and it would have played out the same. It wasn’t that I couldn’t keep track of all the dukes and duchesses and governors running around – it was that I just kind of stopped caring. I think the characters just needed to have more character. I know that part of the plot device was to have all of their motives be secretive, so that the reader could never be sure of what was going to happen, but I think I’ve seen that sort of device used better. If the reader doesn’t have a chance to establish what they think a character should do, then they can’t really get that feeling of being blown away when they see what a character does do. This problem bleeds into the end of the story; the novel ends with a very dramatic event that should have been absolutely gut-wrenching, yet I couldn’t feel the anguish I wanted because I just didn’t feel that invested in the characters. Similarly, I thought that Seth Dickinson’s idea for a masked empire was wonderful, and worked very well thematically with the story, but I wish it had been developed a bit more. The mask was something that should have sent fear or terror or hated up my spine by the end of the novel, but was visually absent for much of the story, and sort of lost its punch by the end of it.
I do, however, have to commend the book for striving to focus on issues of gender, race, and acceptance. Baru is already a strong, smart, ambitious woman, who also happens to be from a repressed and broken race of people. She also happens to be a homosexual, which is violently discouraged by the empire. Much of the story centers around her trying to hide this fact for her own self-preservation, and dealing with the expectations of leaders trying to promote a heterosexual society. I think that the science fiction and fantasy communities have been clamoring for more diverse characters for a while now, and I think it is great to see them starting to appear in books that are being promoted by several of the more main stream fantasy publishers.
So, overall, I have very mixed feeling about this book. I think that mostly I am disappointed because it was a pretty good book when I think it could have been amazing. The concept for the plot, the characters, and the world was great, and I really liked that this book wasn’t afraid of dealing with difficult topics. I just don’t think the execution of the story lived up to the promise that the idea of it had. The fact that the writing was so lovely at the start of the story doesn’t help, because it just made me want the middle of the story to be as good to match it. Unfortunately, I think this is the sort of story that either needed to be much longer and developed more, to give the reader more time to become involved with each of the characters, or less bogged down in the middle so that the reader could see everything play out from more of a distance. Personally, I’m in the needs more development camp. I wasn’t in love with this book as much as I wanted to be, but I am very excited to see what Seth Dickinson writes in the future. I think his ideas are great, I just wish there was a bit more character development and world-building in this novel. I think this is a great novel to recommend to someone who is either searching for more diverse fantasy stories or who is on the lookout for new and upcoming authors. For readers who are looking for more elaborate fantasy worlds with rich histories and complex magic systems, this might not be the book for you. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also ready to move on to another world with new characters.