The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
The Monster Baru Cormorant (2018) by Seth Dickinson is one of those push-me-pull-me books. I admired it more than I enjoyed it. I found it stimulating rather than engaging. I thought it overly talky but liked the level of intellect in the conversation. I could reason out the characters’ assumed emotional states (I think), but never really felt them. I was pushed. I was pulled. Inevitable spoilers (some big ones) for book one, The Traitor Baru Cormorant ahead.
After a brief scene that will make a lot more sense later, The Monster Baru Cormorant gives us a replay of that difficult scene toward the end of the first book — the (seriously, pay attention to the above spoiler warning) execution by drowning of Baru’s lover, Tain Hu. This version throws a bit of new light on the scene as well as serves for the introduction of Baru into her next stage, as one of the behind-the-Throne power brokers known as cryptarchs. Baru’s goal is to use that power to overthrow the Falcrest empire from within, a path she makes easier via the execution of her lover, as that moment was set up on the assumption she’d beg for Tain Hu’s life, thus giving the other cryptarchs leverage over her (all of them have a secret, a hostage, that holds them in check to the others). Her decision to go through with the execution haunts her, but also has freed her to act to bring about Falcrest’s downfall.
I’m not going to wade into the details of the plot in The Monster Baru Cormorant, as it’s dense and convoluted in its politics, movements, uncertainties, and its conspiracies, mutinies, and betrayals. Or conspiracies within conspiracies, betrayals that aren’t betrayals, or betrayals that may be betrayals but not the, yeah, it’s complicated.
Suffice to say that there’s a Great Game afoot, with the cryptarchs as the players (and some perhaps the pawns). The moves include: a potential renewed war between Falcrest and the sprawling Oriati Mbo, a potential civil war within the Mbo, mutiny within the Falcrest navy, a purge of the navy, a search for a secret cult that may or may not exist and may or may not be the major power of the Mbo, and vengeance for Tain Hu’s death (by Hu’s relentless cousin Tain Shir). Some are trying to achieve these ends, some are trying to prevent them, some perhaps think they’re doing one thing but are really unintentionally doing another, and some just may be saying they’re trying to do or not do. (Did I mention it’s complicated?)
As with the first book, I felt more than a little distant from this story, and it took me a while to finish it. It’s rare that I take more than two sittings to get through a book, and this one took me more than two weeks. Some of that was life and work, but a lot of it was picking it up and putting it down not in frustration or anger but just because I’d had enough — it wasn’t actively pulling me through. And I can’t say I picked it up each time in eager anticipation, more a sense of, “well, let’s get through it and see where it goes.”
Part of that is that none of the characters appealed to me or engaged me (i.e. — were not likable but were interesting). I’d love to be able to say exactly why that is, I’ve tried to figure it out, but damn if I can nail it down. The cryptarchs have an actual physical game they play — a sort of literal version of the political game — where each of them is represented by a piece, and that’s sort of how I felt about the characters; they were pieces being moved around. I know Baru is haunted by Tain Hu’s death, I know characters are in love with other characters, but I know that intellectually; I never really felt it.
Maybe it’s all the machinations that creates the distance. Perhaps it was due to the episodic nature of the narrative, a slow start, the sometimes overt and a few times clunky exposition, the POV transitions which didn’t always feel fluid, the flashbacks which didn’t quite mesh well for me (more in terms of structure than story), the aforementioned “talky” nature of the narrative in places. Maybe it’s because for all that Falcrest is set up to be “a” villain (though that simplifies things), with its use of eugenics and plague, etc., the Empire itself remains an abstraction. We see its methods quite concretely, but they seem the actions of a disembodied actor, or of a behind-the-scenes writer. Like I said, I can’t quite label the reason for a sense of distance (probably a combination of all the above but that feels a bit mushy), but it was a noticeable effect.
On the other hand, I did find the themes compelling on an intellectual/ethical level. The questions of sunk cost, of how one quantifies evil when weighing committing a “small” one to stop a “large” one (or if one can quantify it), of if working within a corrupt/tainted system by nature corrupts and taints even the act of trying to bring down the system, the Mbo idea of “trim” — all of us are connected and those relationships have tangible impact on events, exploration of power, colonialization, culture (I found the exploration of gender and sexuality less interesting, appealing in their variety but less stimulating as they seemed more obvious — YMMV). If neither the plot nor the characters engaged me, I thoroughly enjoyed the way the book (the characters) wrestled with these questions. Combine that with my pleasure in how one had to consistently pay attention to the novel (too few books require that of the reader, I’d argue) and I’d say my most positive response to the book was more intellectual than visceral (not a complaint, just an observation).
In the best of worlds, I’d have enjoyed The Monster Baru Cormorant in ways beyond the intellectual. But odds as it sounds, I’ll still usually happily take a well-written thinking book even if I have to push my way to finish it in spite of the characters or story (they can’t be “bad,” just not compelling). Which is why I’ll pick up the third book, which, fair warning, is a necessity as this one ends on a decent-sized cliffhanger. Recommended with caveats.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant ends with the death of a traitor. The Monster Baru Cormorant begins with that traitor’s death, and the ramifications of that death echo throughout every subsequent action, conversation, and decision undertaken by Baru Cormorant. Considering everything else at stake, from the fate of nations to the lives of individuals, it’s quite impressive.
Once said traitor is executed, Baru must contend with the arrival of two cryptarchs, Hesychast and Itinerant, who charge her with a seemingly simplistic-yet-impossible task: uncover the secret behind the strength of the Oriati Mbo, an empire which has somehow resisted Falcrest’s efforts to be absorbed and assimilated. This task is an extension of a quarter-century-long debate between Hesychast and Itinerant, stemming from their dispute over whether it’s a person’s environment which shapes their character or their heredity. Hesychast favors nature; Itinerant favors nurture, evident from his patronage and deliberate moulding of his latest and greatest student, Baru. Her task is also part and parcel of her ascension to cryptarch status: she is given her own unique mask, and chooses the title “Agonist” for herself. Baru has her own ideas about what shapes a person’s character — at least, she thinks she does, but how much of her self can be considered discrete from Falcresti indoctrination? That question is never far from her thoughts, even as she plots and schemes to bring down Falcrest, leaving a mostly-unintentional swath of bodies and destruction in her wake as she sets sail for the Oriati Empire.
Accompanying her is a motley crew of people she has no right to trust, seeing as how they should all be, ultimately, expendable as she pursues her public and private goals: Jurispotence Xate Yawa, a brutal figure in her own right; the cryptarch Apparitor and his bodyguard Iraji; Shao Lune, formerly of the Falcresti Imperial Navy and currently Baru’s prisoner; and, among other personages, a trained seagull which dances for food. Any of them (probably including the gull, for all I know) could turn Baru’s plans to ashes if they had even the slightest idea what secrets she holds in her heart of hearts, and yet, as they travel together, strange alliances are formed. That’s not even to mention the people she encounters along this journey, like the terrifying force of nature known as the Bane of Wives, or Baru’s old friend Lieutenant Aminata, or the delightful Prince Tau-indi. Each have their part to play in this head-spinning mashup of Risk, chess, go, and just a dash of Settlers of Catan.
Dickinson’s world-building is dense, but he keeps the concepts accessible even to readers like me who aren’t well-versed in the higher theories of geopolitics and socioeconomics. Baru is a savant in those arenas, part of what makers her so well-suited for the job at hand (in addition to her own sociopathy), but Dickinson illuminates her thought processes clearly. Where The Monster Baru Cormorant outstrips The Traitor Baru Cormorant, in my estimation, is Baru’s personal growth — frankly, she’s awful at dealing with people, but she’s forced to make an actual effort this time around. What else is there to do on a ship at sea or a small island but get to know one’s traveling companions? Moreover, Baru is confronted with her own self, someone she may not know nearly so well as she previously assumed.
Near the end of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Baru suffered a head injury which blinded her right eye and, it turns out, essentially severed the two halves of her brain. Her body’s right and left sides are equally useable (save the one eye), but there are indications of abnormalities which grow increasingly strange as the novel goes on. I’ll be very interested to see where Dickinson takes this concept as the MASQUERADE series goes forward, what it might ultimately mean for Baru’s plans, and what it signifies with regard to her mental and physical health.
Furthermore, Dickinson widens the scope of The Monster Baru Cormorant’s narrative by including a few key chapters from people who are engaged in their own struggles, along with interludes from Tau-indi’s adolescence, when the Prince first encountered Falcresti emissaries. These additional perspectives grant valuable insight into the world beyond Baru’s white-hot desire for destruction, and show the reader more of Falcresti methods and other cultures than Baru could possibly know. In order to more fully understand why she hates Falcrest for subjugating her people and colonizing her home, readers need to see how this has been done before; in order to better appreciate the consequences of her actions, readers need to see other plots and schemes that Baru either has no knowledge of or unwisely dismisses. Baru might be willing to sacrifice anyone or anything in her quest, but none of her actions take place in a vacuum, and it’s vital for readers to understand that.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for the obvious time, effort, and thought Dickinson has invested in this series, and I think it’s all paid off in spades. Baru is a complex, contradictory, frequently off-putting character, and I have no idea if she’s doing the right thing or whether any of her choices are the correct ones, nor do I have the slightest idea how any of this will end. But I can guarantee that I’ll be waiting with great anticipation for whatever comes next in THE MASQUERADE.
And, as a special treat, Fantasy Literature has an exclusive, spoiler-free excerpt from The Monster Baru Cormorant, provided by our friends at TOR!
Baru’s tongue stuck to her palate when she breathed.
The Liminal Library had been built to die. Carved into rock down below sea level, its air had to be parched by chemistry lest it rot the books; and if invaders struck, the library would flood. The Throne would not give up its secrets. Lanterns of iridescent jellyfish tea cast blue-green light on concrete buttresses, long chains in catenary arches, the marching monoliths of the shelves. The air was dry as bonemeal.
In the distance, red hair and pale skin caught the light for a moment.
“There you are,” Baru breathed.
I admired the first one tremendously and I will probably read this, but I need to be in the right frame of mind. To me it’s definitely a winter book.
Thank you both for such thoughtful reviews on it; really helps me decision-making.
It really helps to be in the right frame of mind for this series — and I completely agree that the first and second are very much “winter” books.