October 11, 2015

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not for the fainthearted. I'll say that right up front, because it's important, and I don't want to be lashed for not mentioning it. The story is the epitome of the phrase, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," or as the book puts it before the story even starts, "A Promise: This is the truth. You will know because it hurts."

I've never seen an author do that before, but if ever a book lives up to its promise, this one does.

This is the story of Baru Cormorant, and her struggle to take down the evil Empire of Masks from the inside out. The Empire conquered her island of Taranoke, not through the usual way--war--but through trade, a treaty, economics, and the promise of better living. Things like antibiotics, dentistry, and roads. Unfortunately the price paid is high: the island's culture is swallowed up and subjugated, its natural resources exploited and stripped, its children indoctrinated into the Imperial way of thinking. (The Empire of Masks is a particularly nasty piece of work; their society is highly homophobic and subscribes to this world's version of eugenics, i.e., forced marriages and people bred like cattle. Undesirables, like Baru, who is a lesbian [or "tribadist"], are put to the knife--castrated and/or circumcised--reeducated through use of drugs or a more brutal version of our "reparations therapy," or killed altogether.) Baru, a mathematics savant, is trained to be an Imperial Accountant, and is assigned to the country of Aurdwynn. She is determined to free her home, and is convinced that playing the Imperial game and destroying the Empire from within is the only way to achieve her goal.

That description, however, in no way does justice to the brutality and ruthlessness of both this book and its main character. Step by step, we are witness to the creation of a monster, whose obsession leads her to do terrible things. Yet Baru is not a sociopath, not really; she loves, she cries, and she grieves, and she feels every bit of what she is doing, but she will let nothing stand in her way. And so the book's central theme is this: How far will Baru go to get what she wants, and will the time ever come when the ends do not justify the means? What, and who, will she sacrifice to defeat the Empire...and can the Empire ever really be defeated?

It's one of the most complex characterizations I've seen in a long time. I was horrified by Baru, and hated her, but I always understood her, and I couldn't take my eyes off her.

Baru becomes the Fairer Hand, the leader of Aurdwynn's rebellion. (Not by force of arms, mind you, but by force of numbers. She is still the Imperial Accountant, manipulating currencies and people with equal aplomb.) After one decisive battle, where the rebels of Aurdwynn defeat the Imperial troops, I looked at the number of pages remaining and realized the book couldn't wrap up here. This story could not possibly have a happy ending.

It didn't. I won't spoil it, except to remind you that the book's title is The Traitor Baru Cormorant. And yet this book could have ended no other way.

It's dark and disturbing, and if you must have optimism in your fiction, you need to stay far away from this one. But if you read this story, it will haunt you for weeks to come. I gave it four stars because of the awkwardness of the first few chapters, dealing with Baru's childhood; once she reaches Aurdwynn, the book blasts on all cylinders.

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