I am not really sure where to even categorize The Traitor Baru Cormorant. It’s not really fantasy, yet based on it’s tone and setting, it would generally fall in that category. It pushes boundaries – moral, sexual, political. It presents many tough questions, tough situations, tough outcomes. The scope is both sprawling and incredibly tight, yet never feels to be too much of either.
It has the makings of a masterpiece, but didn’t always quite fire on all cylinders for me. However, it sure as hell gets close enough.
Baru Cormorant is a young girl, innocent, when The Empire Of Masks arrives to change her island forever. The book’s pitch hits the premise pretty well:
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.
Seems simple enough, almost cliche; the innocent child, the invading force, the revenge! But this book is so much more than that. It presents itself almost as a stereotypical coming-of-age fantasy, a variation on the destiny-bound farmboy. However, it’s nothing of the sort. The book shows Baru in her innocence, then jumps ahead to the meat of the story, using the beginning merely as a contrast. There’s no destiny, there’s no foretelling, none of that – just a girl, growing to a woman, with a very real cunning and desire.
And Seth NAILS it. Characterization, at times, feels like a lost art in fantasy novels, an afterthought; a sidecar ride for the action that is driving the plot. Traitor Baru is the opposite – the characters run this story, their development, their interplay, their dilemmas, their crushing tragedies. Baru is one of the most relatable, visceral, realistic characters I’ve ever read. She grows throughout the story, encapsulates everything it is to be a human, every emotion, every trouble, every feeling from one end of the spectrum to the other. It’s impossible to read this novel and NOT care about her, feel for her losses and dilemmas, suffer for her pains, and cringe for each of her crushing defeats – both internal and external.
The book is beautiful in it’s simplicity, while simultaneously gripping with it’s complexity. Baru fights her way up the Masquerade ranks, getting herself wrapped up in a rebellion, partially trapped within by a secret she is compelled to reveal – one which will tear apart all of her plans if released publicly. There is plot line on top of plot line on top of plot line; so many pieces, the entire bundle a powder keg ready to burst in on Baru, collapsing the house of cards she’s built. However, Dickinson keeps things focused, keeps centered on Baru, allows the reader to follow all of the intricate lines without feeling overwhelmed, or lost, or confused – unlike his protagonist, who routinely feels all of those.
The prose, while not Gaiman or Rothfuss, is elegant, approachable, and interesting all at once. It’s a very easy book to read, despite it’s intense topics and happenings, however does not lack in sophistication. The dialogue is very realistically presented, the characters keeping you surprised, but not acting in sporadic or outlandish ways simply to move the plot forward. The battles, while sparse, are well done, technical, and exciting. The emotions are the crux of it all – I could not help but feel, not just for Baru, but for all of the characters, the ancillaries, the antagonists. Everyone is compelled in some way, motivated by very real forces, and feel the weight of their actions and thoughts, the affects of everything happening around them.
Dickinson hits on some tough topics, including homosexuality, oppression, and cultural discrimination. I felt they were all handled brilliantly – the items were main plot points, without feeling hamfisted or blunt. All were deftly handled, present but not overused, leveraged just enough to twist the heart-strings and emphasize the struggles that the people of his world faced on a daily basis.
The worldbuilding, while somewhat limited, is creative and intriguing. The generic bad guy is not present in this book, rather, a very well-fleshed culture clashes with other well-fleshed cultures, various very different beliefs on display at once. The geography takes a backseat to the pieces filling the lands, but at no point did I feel confused by the world, and I was constantly amazed by the overall variations in characters, cultures, and beliefs.
And, without any spoilers, the last 1/4 of this book was incredible. Things escalate extremely quickly, and the last few chapters are perhaps the most jarring, shocking, breathtaking of any book I’ve read this year. Several moments of pure, unadulterated bad-assery. Gut-wrenching emotional situations, characters facing horrendously painful decisions that are made, often, with a calculated precision that belies the truly crushing nature of their consequences. The ending had me on the edge of my seat, and left me in awe.
The books flaws are few, however are present. The novel, being largely character and drama driven, can be very dry at points, and I found myself waiting for things to progress a bit more quickly, despite staying interested. The middle portion, or I should say the 1/3 – 2/3 marks of the book, bog down a bit, as the pieces fall into place, as the twisted plotlines come together and develop, preparing for the finale. Additionally, Seth’s writing, while very nice, can be extremely repetitive. He was quite proud of his knowledge of scurvy, and mentioned it constantly – scurvy this, scurvy that, scurvy-ridden troops, etc. A lot of words were repeated almost ad nauseum – phalanx, scurvy, duchy, etc. While this is unavoidable in some cases, it felt fairly pronounced in this novel, and I found myself cringing at times when one of the constantly used words or phrases was brought up for the umpteenth time in that chapter.
Overall, the book was really quite pleasant. I thought it handled a lot of delicate topics with a deft hand, keeping things interesting most of the time, and finishing with an incredible bang. The characters were top-notch, as good as any I’ve read this year, and the writing was very good. The Traitor Baru Cormorant was well worth reading, and I’d easily put it among my top books of the year. Not perfect, but very close.