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Book Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

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The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

In Seth Dickinson’s highly-anticipated debut The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a young woman from a conquered people tries to transform an empire in this richly imagined geopolitical fantasy.

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it’s on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.

But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.

I reviewed the sample of The Traitor Baru Cormorant that Tor Books made available via NetGalley a few months ago and consequently bought the book. But I quickly moved on to other reviewing commitments knowing I’d always have this for when I needed to just enjoy something. Then I accidentally got spoiled on a fairly major plot point and despaired of encountering another. So here we are.

I’ll try not to spoil you. If something seems a little too revealing, trust that it’s nothing that’s not obvious. In addition, in my preview I thought I’d seen half the book but it was more like a quarter.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a first persona narration by a girl and later woman that begins with the end of her culture. An imperial commercial power sails into port and slowly subsumes every face of their life. Baru Cormorant loses one of her fathers and is taken from her other parents to be raised in a colonial boarding school.

her patron, the man who singles her out for education, constantly reminds her that only by playing by the empire’s rules can she effect any meaningful change. She learns her lessons quickly and well and exceeds expectations. For which she’s rewarded by being sent to another turbulent vassal state to replace the recently deceased imperial accountant.

That’s right. A mathematical savant, she’s sent to reconcile the taxation and banking infrastructure of a rebellious feudal nation. And it’s as exciting as anything with dragons and wizards. Baru must negotiate her taboo sexuality, her foreign skin, and her own inexperience in a land beset by sedition, intrigue, and fanaticism.

Her constant refrain is to acquire and understand power in order to save her home. Which is being erased as she rises. Seth Dickinson creates distant nobles, close companions, and tense attractions with consistent deliberate skill. On the one hand, when Baru finally encounters an individual she’s only heard about, the reader recognizes them almost before the character does. On the other, where many authors leverage mystery to fuel romance, here perfect understanding makes social calculations as obvious as they are painful.

This is a thoughtful book full of tension and maneuvering, treason and betrayal, feints and counters. I cared, ultimately, for almost everyone. Even when I despised them. So much of moral ambiguity in modern fantasy turns on when and who agonists betray or murder. Dickinson makes it clear that everything was always already grey and makes a virtue of personal conviction without exalting it.

Recommended for fans of The Last Argument of Kings, The Library at Mount Char, and Empire Ascendant.

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