The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Holy cats. That was quite the experience, and one of the banner novels of 2015. I suspect that it is too polarizing for major award consideration, but I’m not sure any release generated more conversation among a certain kind of genre fan. And by “certain kind,” I mean the type of reader who gets excited about stories of accountants managing fictional empires. Yes, that would be me. In my defense, authors like Dan Abraham and K.J. Parker have been doing just fine with long division fantasy for several years now, so clearly it is a viable thing. We even have tradition on our side – no less a warhorse than Ivanhoe includes a crucial scene wherein a character teaches another about double entry bookkeeping. This is all important and fascinating stuff. Really.
Our titular hero, Baru Cormorant, is a math whiz who becomes a top accountant for The Empire of Masks. Naturally, the novel is thus absorbed with the question of cost: the literal costs of empire and rebellion, and the figurative costs of power, ambition, and assimilation. Baru’s tropical home is absorbed by The Masquerade when she is very young, but Baru is noticed early on for her developing intellect and is swept into The Masquerade’s vast schooling network to train as a future bureaucrat. The Empire is a meritocracy, of course, with Imperial positions open to all qualified candidates, regardless of racial and ethnic background. Schooling is a part of the benevolent face put on by the Empire (masks have many meanings here), one that includes technology (sanitation and hygiene in particular), economic rationalization, and stability. This undeniably positive face cloaks policies of rigid order, eugenics, strict moral behavior, and other Big Brother-y horrors.
The other main question the book poses is that of change, and how to drive it. I found this particularly relevant as, at the time of writing, we are still in the middle of candidate nomination battles for the 2016 U.S. Presidential election Dickinson asks, through Baru and her frenemy Tain Hu, whether change is best provoked from a position of power inside an institution, or through bottom up rebellion from the outside. In the fight on the Democratic side, one voice (Hillary Clinton) is advocating gradual change from within, while another (Bernie Sanders) preaches grassroots revolution. Both of them, and in turn the majority of the Democratic Party, want similar outcomes, but have stark disagreements about the mechanisms required for change. (Don’t listen to arguments over policy outcomes – this is essentially a debate over methods.) Baru has sworn an oath of vengeance against The Masquerade for conquering her homeland and, in the process, killing family and friends. Tain Hu is a noblewoman in the territory Baru oversees, with a constant stream of plots and conspiracies designed to evict The Masquerade. The two argue throughout the book over method – who is more likely to see victory over the common enemy. Dickinson provides few easy answers as conflict develops, then rages.
We see the world almost entirely through Baru’s eyes. She is, spoiler alert, a traitor. Traitor to what, though? We know from the first that she is plotting to betray the empire that has developed and promoted her. She must bury her loyalties deep however, because any hint of her real motivation will cost her the power she craves (also likely resulting in her unpleasant death). Baru’s secrets force her onto pathways that make her complicit with all of the imperialism that she claims to hate. Further, the power she gains can be used for self-aggrandizement or to assist her ultimate goal, but these are the same things, right? And all of the horrible things she either does directly, or cause through economic policy, these are in the service of a greater good. Of course they are. Personal power and advancement are necessary to eventually free her people, and the ugly side of colonialism is an unfortunate but necessary side effect. The ends obviously justify the means, so Baru is in no way a traitor to herself, or those around her. Of course not. When she gazes into the abyss of her own soul, Baru can naturally feel at peace with what she is doing. She is indeed a serene creation throughout.
There is no getting around the brutality of Dickinson’s book. Not just in descriptive violence, though there is that, but in the damage done to relationships, to cultures, and to souls. Colonialism and empire are popular topics right now in the genre, and Dickinson wades in with a sword in both hands. At what cost civilization? At what cost rebellion? The Masquerade is unquestionably evil, sewers and vaccinations notwithstanding, but how much is Baru willing to pay to fight them? And how far are we willing to let her go before we turn on her? The book’s coda is a gut punch, one that I should have seen coming but chose not to, though really it’s the only way this story can resolve itself. History is clear that when empires are on the march, there are few happy endings. I have to keep reading this series to see what happens, to see if Baru’s sacrifices ultimately have meaning. There is plenty more to talk about, notably the homophobic strain in the empire and its effects. I’m a little less qualified to talk about that though, and will stick with politics for now.
This ended up being more of a dry, academic look at Baru Cormorant that doesn’t do justice to the visceral magnetism of the book. The is one that really grabs life by the lips and yanks; a story that stays in one’s mind like a recalcitrant splinter that won’t be dislodged. Plenty of crunchy stuff in there to engage the brain, but also an icy, slowly closing fist that won’t let the reader disengage. It’s not pretty, but it’s impossible to turn away from. Dickinson writes deeply frightening, probing stuff; necessary reading right now if we are to really confront the realities of our world order. I would recommend chasing Baru Cormorant with something light and fluffy though – it’s not healthy to be heavy all the time.