I’ll confess up front I’ve struggled mightily with Seth Dickinson’s series that started with The Traitor Baru Cormorant and continued with The Monster Baru Cormorant. I’ve found lots to admire in the first two books, especially intellectually, but I can’t say I actually much enjoyed them. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up book three, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant (2020). Unfortunately, it turned out to be my least favorite of the three, though again providing some meaty moments.
I’m not going to do much recapping or summarizing. You really need to have read books one and two before trying this one, and the plot is pretty baroque, filled with schemes within schemes, reversals of fortune, and betrayals within betrayals. Suffice to say that Baru is continuing her attempt to destroy the Falcrest Empire from within, and that attempt involves some expected and unexpected allies, some expected and unexpected foes, and some (if you’ve read the first two books) expected switching of those roles. Baru also has to come to terms with just how far she will go to destroy Falcrest (what personal price, what sacrifice of others) and how much of a tool she is, unwillingly and unknowingly, of the Throne’s agents.
The plot, as noted, is labyrinthine, but I’m not sure a lot really happens in terms of action. It reminds me a bit of those hugely costly battles in WWI that lasted weeks and ended up gaining/losing a few yards of ground. There are a lot of time formulating plans, a lot of time discussing plans, a lot of time arguing over plans, but not so much doing. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is a long book (600+ pages), and for me it felt every bit of its length and more. To contrast that, my prior read was David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue, which though also 600+ pages felt more like 400 and which I breezed through in two days, as compared to the week it took me to finish Tyrant. And where it all leads felt quite anti-climactic, both in its resolution and its presentation.
Like the other novels, Tyrant is a very “talky” book, with the occasional pages of action feeling more like a perfunctory bit of work to set up the next conversation. If characters weren’t talking to each other, they were talking to someone in their head (trust me, it makes sense in the book’s context) or they were having interior monologues with themselves. Some of these monologues or conversations were, as noted, intellectually stimulating, as Dickinson explores empire and imperialism and other broad topics (many with clear analogues to our modern times). Others were less so, such as the mini lectures on banking and joint stocks (again, context). It isn’t that those things can’t be made interesting — Daniel Abraham wrote an absolutely great series with banking at its core (THE DAGGER AND THE COIN), and David Liss has written some wonderfully entertaining books involving 18th Century stock ventures (no, really). Unfortunately, the execution wasn’t here to the same level.
And while Baru is an intellectually interesting character based on situation, I’ve never felt engaged by her as a person or by nearly any of the other characters except for Tau. I know I’m supposed to care about who is imprisoned or held hostage or dying or being brought back from seeming death or having/not having sex, but I just didn’t. And though I’m told constantly that the characters care about those things as well, it never felt that way for me. That distancing has been probably my major stumbling block to the series. While in the prior book the intellectual stimulation balanced it enough to garner a half-hearted recommendation, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant didn’t have quite the same amount of stimulation and that diminished positive combined with the issues of plot and pace and length made this a far less enjoyable read. I love what Dickinson is looking at in this series, but it’s hard for me to recommend the series, which feels a bit buried under its own weight.