Seth Dickinson, “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” (2015) – Does it count as fantasy if there isn’t any magic in it? That’s just one of the questions raised by this excellent novel that I’ll just go ahead and call early-modern fantasy anyway. It has a lot of fantasy tropes; a young person with a destiny/quest, an alternate world, battles with pre-modern weapons, duels. It also has twisty feudal politics galore, driving comparisons to the Game of Thrones books, but for my money Dickinson gets a lot more done creatively in fewer pages than GoT.
Baru Cormorant lives on an idyllic island — pre-contact Hawaii divides by Lesbos — as a child but we all know that can’t last. The Empire of the Masquerade gets its hooks in things via trade followed by conquest. The Masquerade is an interesting invention. The product of a sort of Jacobin/Machiavellian type revolution, it is notionally a meritocratic republic, where all civil servants wear masks to anonymize themselves as servants of the people, hence the name. They make their way to empire more through cunning introduction of innovations that favor them — monetary policy, sanitation, education, etc. — than by military might, though they have a lot of the latter. All is not well with the Masquerade, though- part of their overarching rationalism is strict eugenics and conditioning programs, which entail a rabid homophobia among other issues.
Baru gets taken in as a child to a Masquerade school, but vows to never forget her two dads who the Masquerade kills or her mom, to whom she promised vengeance. She decides she will excel at the meritocracy game, gain high place in the empire, and use it to… here she waffles between “make improvements to her home’s position” and “throw off the Masquerade yoke” but whatever, she’s like eighteen. She excels in her training (at the cost of suppressing her own sexual identity) and is eventually appointed Imperial Accountant of a different restive province, Aurdwynn. Her patrons imply that if she can help make Aurdwynn governable, then she will get to move still further up the ranks.
Aurdwynn is basically Game of Thrones’ Westeros, to an extent where I wonder if Dickinson is making sly jabs at George RR Martin. Run by a welter of dukes, each with their own involved alliances, economies, heraldry, customs and so on, it’s a mess, and one that constantly rebels. Baru has her work cut out for her.
It’s hard to know how much to say about the plot of the book without giving it away. Suffice it to say we wind up with a very interesting depiction of an early modern (they have telescopes, frigates, and eugenics but no guns- most battles are fought by phalanxes) rebellion. Dickinson takes us through the back and forth of winning over dukes, losing dukes, forming something like a guerrilla army and using it, without losing any steam in the process. It’s a good match of solid plotting and innovative worldbuilding. The language tends towards the flowery and passionate- lots of lists of things joined by “ands,” for instance. But it works pretty well for the situation, especially as Baru finds it difficult to hold together the threads of her personality, including her suppressed sexuality.
Again, avoiding spoilers, we’ll just say that the book sets itself up for the sequel that came out recently. It seems things might get a bit more magical-er as Baru peers deeper behind the Masquerade, so it might become more conventional fantasy. I hope it maintains its footing in the early modern- republics, finance, proto-versions of things like people’s war and eugenics, these things make for a worthwhile niche in the fantasy world. *****