Featured Review | The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson

About the Book

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT is an epic geopolitical fantasy about one woman’s mission to tear down an empire by learning how to rule it.

Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up from the sand of her home and see red sails on the horizon.

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.

In a final test of her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. Aurdwynn kills everyone who tries to rule it. To survive, Baru will need to untangle this land’s intricate web of treachery – and conceal her attraction to the dangerously fascinating Duchess Tain Hu.

But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.

400 pages (hardcover)
Published on September 15, 2015
Published by Tor
Author’s webpage
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This book was sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

First things first, if you don’t like your books with a dash of tragedy, then you really need to avoid this one. This doesn’t have just a dash of tragedy; it has a bucketful of it.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of Baru, whose homeland is overtaken by the Empire of Masks through trade, disease, education and the like. As she grows from child to young adult, she watches the culture she loves be slowly eradicated by this foreign power. Baru, a very intelligent woman, realizes that the only way to defeat her enemy is to fight it from the inside. She bides her time by working hard to become part of the Masquerade and learn to weld power and fight for her homeland from the inside.

Baru is one of the best characters I’ve read for a long time. She is so detailed and layered to the point where it’s hard to believe that she’s just a fictional creation. She’s a powerful character, as her inner struggles play almost as big of a role as the external struggles that she’s dealing with.

In many ways, Baru is tragically flawed. She’s an example of how too much of anything can be bad. She’s so driven it becomes detrimental in many ways. She’s internalized so many of the drives and desires that makes her human that she’s almost more automaton at times than actually human. She works so hard to keep so many of her desires repressed, she doesn’t really know how to be anything but tragically driven, and almost compulsive with her end goals and the positions she fills. Baru is a bunch of extremes woven together in one woman. She seems to handle life by refusing to let herself feel, and often her excess emotions are dealt with by drinking too much.

The plot will keep readers on the edge of their seats, though the tension that is felt is more from Baru’s economics, and the importance of money and her own goals rather than any real battles and sword fights (though they do take place). This book is about the kind of revolution and revolt that is fought more by the pen than by the sword. it is a thoughtful revolution that builds slowly and has a lot of subtlety.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is kind of like a rabbit hole, it sucks you in and takes you deeper and deeper. Slowly Baru changes from the girl you’re first introduced to and into something else. She’s a rough character, almost impossible to actually like, but you can’t help but feel sympathetic for her and her plight as you watch her sell more and more of her soul for her end goal. She’s distant and remote, incredibly hard to relate to, and while part of you will probably loathe her more and more as the book progresses, you’ll also feel a deep sympathy for a person who has to change so much to accomplish what she’s trying to accomplish.

It’s interesting how Dickinson took the tale of the hero and flipped it on its head. This book expresses a viewpoint that not many books show. Often times the hero has to give up more of themselves than people realize to accomplish their goals. Slowly the girl Baru is bled away, and she turns into something else, something not quite human, slowly and almost silently tortured, but absolutely consumed by her goals. The more lofty the desire, the more of a personal sacrifice is required. Baru is a huge walking, talking sacrifice. She gives up just about every part of herself for what she wants, and it’s tragic to watch, but impossible to turn away from. In many ways she becomes what she hates just to accomplish her end goal. How much are you willing to give up in order to get something you want? Baru, in many ways, is willing to sell her soul, and the intimate process of watching it happen is riveting in a very uncomfortable way.

The world building is fantastic, almost as well drawn as the character Baru herself. Dickinson thought about just about every aspect that he could, and instead of dumping a ton of information at strategic points, he deftly wove it into his story in a way that made so many things easy to understand, and helped the world feel vivid and well realized to his readers. The world itself is sprawling, and in some ways made me think of the Malazan Empire. It’s huge, and diverse, with a ton of history and unique cultures. No two conquered lands are the same. There are a ton of different influences that Dickinson drew on to create his lands and peoples, but in the end he changed them all enough so their influences are felt, but not overpowering. This world is absolutely unique to the author.

Furthermore, Dickinson isn’t shy about showing how an expanding and sprawling empire is altering cultural norms. There are issues of gender and sexuality that are presented, as well as uncomfortable ways that the empire deals with things that aren’t acceptable to them. Once again, Baru’s tortured voice is perfect for showing just how the empire’s standards can emotionally and physically impact the people that it effects. It’s heart wrenching, soul crushing, and incredibly powerful. The juxtaposition between the cultures that the empire slowly chews up and digests, and the people, like Baru, that are scarred by that process is incredibly compelling.

The ending is in line with the rest of the book. It’s important to remember that the word “traitor” is in the title, and that word has its own dark connotations that play out throughout the book and the ending. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is one of those books that is dark, and uncomfortable, often unlikeable, but completely unforgettable. It’s important, and thought provoking, and shockingly well realized. You won’t like all of it, and chances are you won’t actually enjoy parts of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book to read. In fact, this has been one of my favorite books so far this year. It’s a merciless punch in the gut that made me feel a shocking amount of raw emotion.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is unforgettable. This book will change how you read your epic fantasy.

Bravo, Dickinson.


5/5 stars


2 Responses

  • I’m a little afraid of stories too rife with tragedy but you somehow still sold it to me despite this aversion. “It’s interesting how Dickinson took the tale of the hero and flipped it on its head.” I like the sound of this! There’s more to being a hero than just wielding a sword and charging into battle. Especially if you are a figurehead to a movement. “The world building is fantastic.” This for sure has me curious to learn more about this world and the characters. Just popped over to the author’s website and saw that he’s having a read-a-long! Neat! Thanks for the head’s up about this one.

  • I know a book has me, and a book blogger has been doing a good job, when I stop reading the review partway through. I was sold quickly, I tell myself, and now I just risk spoilers! I’ll have to pick up a copy, and come back to finish your review after I’ve read it myself : )

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