A brilliant, creative debut novel, heavy on political intrigue and empire management. Creative worldbuilding and interesting characters make for a compelling start to a new series.
One of the things I love about SF&F literature is its inherent freedom to explore new ideas. With the explosion of new talent that’s come fom independent publishing, never has that been more true than it is today. New authors come out almost weekly, with new ideas coming at us so fast that we can’t keep up with them all. It’s a true golden age, even if it is a little hard to see sometimes.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a curious outlier in the world of fantasy. Since its release about a year and a half ago, some reviewers have described it as “hard fantasy”, which I assume refers to the lack of magic or any kind of super-powers in the story. I think a better description would be “meta fantasy” or “meta fiction”, since the setting is almost secondary. It’s a place to tell a story about people and politics.
I had a similar feeling while reading Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series. That story could be characterized as either fantasy or as science fiction — it doesn’t really matter, because the story is about the people and how they’re dealing with the society that they have and the opposite they’re facing. It’s not laser beams and artificial graviy that make Red Rising a great story, but rather team-building, ethical dilemmas and creative action scenes.
The story of Baru Cormorant is all about people and politics. The first part of the story tells us about the young Baru, growing up in a rural land that is having its first brush with the temptations of the Imperial Republic of Masks. An actual republic, ruled by a legislature with a traditional “emperor” as a figurehead, the empire is clearly modeled after 18th and 19th century Britain, but far more evil and unilateral in its practices. Cleverly nicknamed “The Masquerade”, the empire’s leaders, including the emperor, wear masks and hide their identity behind an extreme form of manifest destiny. The empire believes that it’s bringing civilization to the world, and will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
The way in which the empire “conquers” Baru’s land is clever and interesting, and is clearly intended to reflect modern, real-world history. And that’s only our first glimpse of how the empire is capable of operating. Indeed, as Baru grows up, becoming part of the empire’s system, we learn more about the empire’s methods and how they might (or might not) be defeated. This is the main thrust of the story, and it’s quite clever and engaging. I couldn’t help but wonder at many points in the story how Emperor Palpatine might have taken a few lessons from The Masquerade’s playbook, had he had the chance.
Clever use of language and phrasing constantly reminds us that appearances can be deceiving. Almost nothing is precisely as it appears, with real motives constantly in question and the concept of “the unreliable narrator” clearly in play.
I have to add a caveat to this review: This is clearly a political story, not a traditional fantasy adventure. There’s no journey. There’s no exploration or discovery. There’s no magic. It’s all about the empire and how to defeat it. The storytelling relies heavily on narrative, with minimal dialog. The dialog that’s present is quite creative and engaging, and the characters are interesting and much more than just placeholders or wall ornaments, and a superb example of worlbuilding fills out the fantasy world in a meaningful way.
But the problem with a heavily narrative approach is that it distances the reader from personal investment. You can never love Baru or any other characters in the story. You won’t want to live in this world. There is little escapism here, just grand-scale empire building and destruction.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? I wouldn’t want to live in the world of Westeros, but it sure is entertaining to read about it. I think it depends on how well the story is told. Granted I often read for the express purpose of escapism — it’s a primary motivation for me. But it’s not my only motivation, and what’s far more important is creativity, cleverness, and smart plot development.
Another series this reminded me of was Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant. That under-rated series was all about political maneuvering and ethical dilemmas. The next book in the Baru Cormorant series, The Monster Baru Cormorant (expected later this year), clearly suggests a move in a similar direction with Anthony’s series. I look forward to seeing where Dickinson goes with this.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Audio: 5 / 5