Speculative Fiction Reviews, Interviews, Art and Whatever Else!
Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up from the sand of her home and see red sails on the horizon.
The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They'll conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She'll swallow her hate, prove her talent, and join the Masquerade. She will learn the secrets of empire. She’ll be exactly what they need. And she'll claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.
In a final test of her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. Aurdwynn kills everyone who tries to rule it. To survive, Baru will need to untangle this land’s intricate web of treachery - and conceal her attraction to the dangerously fascinating Duchess Tain Hu.
But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.
Conundrum: How do you review a book, you hate to love? This did start as a rather long essay, I kid you not; I turned into a bloody crit lit student writing a Master's thesis. I swear, if this book doesn’t go on university syllabuses for spec-fic writing/critiquing units in the future, I’ll be mighty surprised. So, if I start espousing weirdness, forgive me..
I featured The Traitor (or The Traitor Baru Cormorant depending on the edition), after reading an excerpt a few months ago. I was really blown away by the first few chapters, a truly intense, brutal, yet beautiful geopolitical fantasy. Starting with the outlook of a a very young Baru Cormorant, watching her people persecuted and murdered as she is being 're-educated' by the invading Empire of Masks. As she learns to become a good citizen of the empire, she also learns the best way to fight it. She becomes the perfect student so that she can fight from within the Empire, and at age 18, she is given the perfect opportunity to start working on the end goal by becoming an Imperial Accountant to a country long set on rebelling against it. It sets up beautifully..
... But I had no idea what I was really in for, because this isn't just a well written exposition on a fantasy world being taken over by an empire. It's a freaking explosive story of a young woman willing to do anything, to try and help her country and people take back their land, identity and freedoms. Not just strapping on armor, becoming a master swords-woman and hacking down evil army hoards (though she does do a bit of that too), but by using her savant mind to destroy from the inside, through finance, secrets and becoming a Traitor. Baru is willing to sell her soul to accomplish her goals. And her soul must endure some mighty gaping gouges before the end of the novel. Or, I think it does. I am pretty sure it does?
It deals with issues that will make conservative readers have a melt down in horror, and those looking for progressive fantasy jig with the sheer weight of it’s ideas and it’s ferocity in dealing with them. It pulls no punches in making the reader completely aware of the brutality committed against citizens not conforming to the Empires ‘Hygiene’ standards: homosexuals, those in non-traditional family arrangements, adulterers - pretty much anybody that might spoil the cleanliness of an Empire striving for perfect citizens. Releasing plagues to wipe out tribes, using psychological ‘conditioning methods’ to control, hot pokers and knives for genitalia, and stolen generations placed into schools for ‘re-education’. It. is. not. pretty.
I believe the reason it is so completely repugnant, and resonates in such a horrific way, is that these aren’t new methods to human kind. Just like the fantasy Masked Empire, so too have we committed such vile acts in the name of advancing our species. Horrors committed for our best interest. It’s incredibly confronting, because for a fantasy, it borders very close to our history (and in some places, our present).
Dickinson never really shows these scenes first hand, it's always something that has happened to loved ones, or people that are known to the characters; which makes it all that much more emotionally evocative. For frequent dark fantasy readers, a torture scene is about as standard fare as you can get. In frequency, comes a sort of complacency to the violence. However, when it hits you squarely that the violated aren't the only ones tortured through these acts, it becomes much more realistic, as your immunity walls are breached from the inside!
The writing in The Traitor is just fantastic. It has a lyrical dream like quality during Baru’s childhood, that juxtaposes the brutality of what's going on around her as it possibly would for any child; then sharpens as Baru’s mind and mission starts to come into focus. Then occasionally, it gets messy and out of control, as Baru’s mind starts to tumble about on occasion. I just found it uniquely beautiful. I don't think I've actually read anything quite like it, a tone and style that progresses with the character’s mind set, rather than simply writing around and about it.
I don't wish to spoil anything, but the last 10% of this book is just pants wettingly good. Seth Dickinson is truly an evil genius, and I bow down to his mastery of the rug pull. I literally, LITERALLY (I felt the need to say it twice since there is no longer a synonym for literally, and I need to make my point clear), put down the book, thought for two seconds, and then maniacally giggled 'you masochistic mother f&*%^er'. I never use that term, and you will not appreciate why that 'never used term' babbled from my lips once I put this book down, until you read it. So read it, because you need to see what a perfectly executed 'I can’t even think coherently now' ending looks like.
There was really only one negative thought I had about The Traitor, and honestly it doesn't take too much away from the overall brilliance; however there were a few times that I thought some scenes felt tacked in, causing a slight pacing issue. Obviously Dickinson wanted to show all of the various facets of Baru, which in actuality I applaud, as I have no problem with getting into the gritty of a character. I think it was the execution of the scenes that disjointed the flow; occasionally it feels as though you've left the main narrative and all of a sudden you've entered a side quest that doesn’t seem to give out any reward. Due to that, there were scenes that ended up feeling extraneous, rather than essential exploration. It only seems to happen around the middle third of the book, and by the end these side quests do have some bearing on how Baru reacts to certain situations; so it’s not, as I said a huge problem. It’s quite possible that it’s just a personal preference of mine being shaken up, but the weird shifts in momentum, did distract me enough to mention it.
The thing is, as much as I am gasping for a sequel, I almost don’t want to read it. Truth. I am actually a little scared where it’s going to go, and what the hell it might do to my gods damn heart when I read it. Will I read it? Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, Yes! Will I ever recover from it though? That's the burning question!