(Foreword: actual rating: 5.5/5 stars. Do not read Dickinson’s short story of the same title; it’s a spoiler for the novel’s ending. Consider yourself forewarned. Also, please see my interview with Seth Dickinson.)
Breathtakingly original and carefully crafted, The Traitor Baru Cormorant by debut novelist Seth Dickinson is one of those very few works that straddle the line between “genre” and “literary” fiction. It’s the story of a girl: a lover, a traitor, a savant, an accountant, and above all, a daughter of a huntress, a smith, and a shield-bearer, but it’s also a story of oppression, of resistance, of identity, and of politics. With a novel years in the making, Seth Dickinson brings us the heart-rending tale of Baru Cormorant, who as a child witnesses her homeland of Taranoke conquered by the nearby Empire of Masks, the “Masquerade.” As she learns the doctrines of the Masquerade and its philosophy, termed “Incrastic thought,” Baru sometimes struggles to recall the teachings of her mother and fathers — yes, she has two fathers — and eventually aces the imperial civil service exams, landing a position as an accountant in the faraway and similarly conquered Aurdwynn. There, Baru encounters elaborate plots, cunning betrayals, and devious villains set on causing the Empire woe. With beautiful prose and incredible ambition, Dickinson sets Baru the task of ensuring peace in the province while simultaneously advancing her own position. It’s that powerful amalgam, the prose and the scope, of The Traitor Baru Cormorant that provides much of the secret ingredient that establishes the emotional punch of the story.
Dickinson’s writing is intricate, sometimes delicate, and always absolutely delicious. Because every word is specially chosen with a purpose in mind, because every word contains some special meaning (s), you can’t help but savor Dickinson’s prose and dialogue. Each sentence is packed with subtext, double entendres, and hidden connotations, while simultaneously leaving space for reader interpretation. As a wordsmith, Dickinson’s style falls somewhere between Patrick Rothfuss’s and Guy Gavriel Kay’s. Although sometimes the prose feels as flowery as Kay’s, Dickinson avoids some of Kay’s pitfalls, for example: the endless drama or the plethora of infinitesimal details. Furthermore, the writing is sometimes lyrical, intimate, and poignant like Rothfuss’s, and Seth Dickinson is able to weave a compelling narrative with the style alone. The flow of the novel was wonderful as well, which helped to ensure that I simply couldn’t stop reading. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is worth reading just for the prose, but the emotional impact of the plot supported the writing and made the story truly great.
While the prose was indeed amazing, the main contributor to The Traitor Baru Cormorant’s emotional impact was the scope of the story. Dickinson didn’t just serve us an epic fantasy on a silver platter, but chose instead to highlight specific themes and grand consequences while emphasizing the personality and struggles of Baru Cormorant. The diversity in this work is noticeable and appreciable — not just the female protagonist or the LGBTQIA refrains, but also the variety of landscapes and worldbuilding. Dickinson demonstrates how Baru’s and the Empire’s actions affect the lives of ordinary Masquerade citizens, and he presents us with a plot possessing vast scope as he concurrently fashions a world containing many cultures and peoples. Yet, at the same time, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is not so much about the world-shattering events that occur, not about the treacherous and complex politics in Aurdwynn, not about the espionage and intrigue employed by the Masquerade and its enemies. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is highly personal because it’s more about the difficult challenges and courageous sacrifices of a young woman as she attempts to navigate the world, which really allows Dickinson’s characters to shine through and pull at our heartstrings. With a trace of grimdark, though nothing quite as intense as Joe Abercrombie or even Mark Lawrence, Dickinson incorporated an element of realism that made the plot all the more moving. By the end of the story, I found myself almost as emotionally touched as I was by the end of The Name of the Wind, another of my all-time favorites.
All that aside, while I’ve focused mostly on diversity in writing, the philosophical and social bents of The Traitor Baru Cormorant were also fantastic. With Incrastic thought, Seth Dickinson offers us a moral system that can be good, just, evil, and corrupt. By exposing the flaws of utilitarian ethics, Dickinson forces us to question whether or not the ends truly justify the means and other all-encompassing questions. Additionally, I enjoyed the diversity in political and sexual orientation and the non-traditional family structures, and parts of plot were sometimes reminiscent of the combat between social liberalism and social conservatism. It’s because Dickinson’s work embodies the tenets of fantasy and really makes us think, in addition to all the above, that I’m comfortable labelling The Traitor Baru Cormorant as “literary.”
With The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Dickinson will definitely make a splash in the genre, especially as fantasy as a whole expands and diversifies. There were a few minor issues in the ARC, but they were mostly very nitpicky. Certain transitions weren’t as smooth and seamless as I would have expected from an author whose writing is as superb and as graceful as Paciugo gelato (which is divine). However, given that it was a pre-publication version, the transitions should be polished and as close to heavenly perfection as possible by publication. I’ll definitely be re-reading this in September, after publication. Secondly, a foreword/preface/some words from Dickinson would have been appreciated, especially one that contained a pronunciation guide since I realized halfway through the story I couldn’t decide if “Taranoke” was pronounced tar-a-noh-key or tar-a-nohk. Again, not a deal breaker.
My final quibble with The Traitor Baru Cormorant was with the subplots. Some of them, especially the romantic elements, could definitely have been fleshed out much more. I couldn’t help but feel that a few more pages to develop the additional storylines would have both made them more convincing and also reinforced the main plot and its emotional effects, but I do understand that part of that lack of development was a strategic decision. That said, Seth Dickinson’s first novel was highly impressive and will certainly attract hordes of fans and conspiracy theorists; Dickinson also has set up a sequel impeccably, although one hasn’t been officially announced yet (hint, hint!). All in all, if you were to read only a single fantasy novel in your life — I would highly recommend that it be this one.
Kevin Wei’s review covers the themes and merits of this excellent book so eloquently that there just isn’t anything of substance I can add, other than to say this book is fiercely intelligent, frequently brutal in the moral dilemmas that its central character Baru Cormorant faces, and the world it depicts is incredibly detailed and complicated, just like our own world. It reminds me in many ways of N.K. Jemisin’s BROKEN EARTH series in its unflinching exploration of serious themes in a fast-paced, original, dark, and gripping narrative, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit in its treatment of gender identity and societal restrictions on sexuality.
In particular, The Traitor Baru Cormorant delves deeply into what it means to deceive both others and one’s self in the name of seizing power for revenge. The layers of deceptions, facades, plots, betrayals, identity, control, rebellion, and suppression that infuse the characters and story are byzantine and yet fully controlled by author Seth Dickinson. It’s an oft-repeated cliche, but this does not read like a debut novel. To get a sense of how widely-read Dickinson is, read the interview he did with Kevin — fantastic insights that show just how deeply he has thought about these themes and issues, and Kevin’s questions are pure genius.
Overall, this book was both exhilarating and harrowing, and I particularly appreciated that the main character is a royal accountant who understands that both governments and rebellions need funding to survive, and the same goes for the military. It’s a subject that rarely gets detailed treatment in fantasy fiction, but it was very relevant to the story and gave it added realism. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find any magical elements in the story, much more like an alternate world with a fantasy feel to it.
Given the depth and complexity of the story, I think it is probably best read in print rather than audiobook to get the full effect, but narrator Christine Marshall does an excellent job nonetheless. It’s just that it’s harder to stop an audiobook to reflect on a certain passage the way you can with a print copy. If I had more time in my daily life, I would definitely read it in hardcopy. I’ve heard the author is working on a sequel, and it’s a no-brainer that it would go straight to the top of my TBR list.