[Editor’s note: This review includes major spoilers for The Traitor Baru Cormorant.]
When last we saw Baru Cormorant, she was standing in the ashes of her adopted home of Aurdwynn, all her plans gone wrong. Or, rather, devastatingly right: as tax collector and imperial accountant in the province of Aurdwynn, she’d made herself the chief strategist and figurehead behind a revolt that was ultimately revealed as an enormously complex ruse, planned by the Empire of Masks in order to root out sedition—and Baru was in on it the entire time. Her traitorous aspects stood fully revealed, though it remained less clear than ever precisely who, and what she, had betrayed. The oppressive government of the Masquerade that had once seemed to be her real target? The people of Aurdwynn? Or we, the readers, who’d been skillfully taken in by Baru’s plot? One thing is clear at the start of the long-in-coming sequel The Monster Baru Cormorant: nether Baru, nor her chronicler Seth Dickinson, can be entirely trusted—which makes the sequel all the more fascinating.
The results of Baru’s maneuverings see her ensconced within the highest levels of the Empire of Masks. She’s taken on the name “Agonist” and a seat on the ruling council that sits behind the figurehead Emperor. Her (very) long game seems to remain in play: to recreate the Empire from within and, in that regard, avenge the conquest of her homeland, the remote island of Taranoke. Though she holds out little hope of learning the truth of his fate, there’s also the question of her missing father, Salm, whom Baru believes to have been murdered by the Masquerade for the crime of sodomy—a motivation and a mystery that is further developed in this volume. In a sense, it’s all going according to plan, but her actions in Aurdwynn have left scars. To prove her loyalty to the Empire, she sacrificed everyone she cared about, not least of whom was her general and lover, the Dutchess Tain Hu. In hewing so ruthlessly to her goals, she’s traded one family for another, and left herself in an even more precarious position—her sponsor, Cairdine Farrier, is easily her match as a manipulator, and is persuing his own shadowy ends. Baru has nothing left to trade. For the first time she wonders if mission of revenge has been worth it—not that doubts will stop her.
While the first book lingered in the provinces, Monster takes us into the center of imperial power, while broadening the world as a whole. Dickinson’s worldbuilding remains streamlined and impressive, with a focus split between the plots and counterplots of Falcrest, the center of empire, and Oriati Mbo to the south. Oriati is the principle rival to Falcrest, with a very different culture and deep internal divisions as to how to respond to the Masquerade’s soft-gloved aggression. Abdumasi Abd, an Oriati Mbo native, was part of a flotilla of ships that came to aid Baru’s rebellion in Aurdwynn (the one designed to fail, remember) and is captured and interrogated by Baru’s sometimes friend, sometimes rival Aminata. Just as the confederation has different ideas about how to handle their norther neighbors, the Empire of Masks is similarly divided: Abd quickly becomes a political hot potato; useful to forces that want war, dangerous to those who feel that there are better, more subtle, means of conquest.
Baru continues to play her role, while looking for long-term advantage in the conflict between various factions of the empire. As with tax policy in the previous book, Dickinson has a gift for making the minutiae of imperial administration not just interesting, but dramatic. Plots and counterplots turn on Baru’s smallest moves, and the kind of detail that could be (would be) dull in the hands of a lesser writer drips with tension. Just as Baru is rewarded for an attention to detail and subtlety, so too are we rewarded for reading closely. Dickinson isn’t afraid to dig deep into his characters’ psyches, nor into the details of the world, but none of the details are needless adornments—Monster is wordy and dense, but nary a page is wasted, making the book very difficult to put down.
It’s never incidental that Baru is a woman, nor is this a world without gender roles. Though a fantasy, strictly speaking, there are pointed similarities between her world and our own. Baru isn’t entirely discounted for her gender in the supposedly egalitarian culture of the Masquerade, but it is constantly noted by her peers, as is her capacity for breeding the flawlessly “hygienic” children demanded by the empire. Men can be forgiven and rewarded for blunt action, whereas Baru’s power to shift the empire to her favor lies almost entirely in cunning. Her sexuality, too, is of strategic value both to herself and to her enemies: her queerness protects her from love alliances with men, but also makes her subject to blackmail in the intolerant empire.
Where Baru, as a character, is colored in shades of deepest grey, she’s utterly compelling—not just for her calculating mastery of moves and countermoves, but for the reasons behind them. He hot-blooded quest for justice is the steaming, beating heart at the center of a cold world, and sets the sequel and series so far apart from other fantasy epics in which the endgame is often power for power’s sake. In Baru’s homeland, a family with two or more fathers is not uncommon. The Oriati Mbo recognize a third gender, at least. The eugenically inclined Empire of Masks is so concerned with conformity and perfect offspring that they’ve clamped down on all but the most vanilla varieties of procreative sex in deeply cruel ways. Do Baru’s ends justify her means? By the end of The Monster Baru Cormorant, she’s left yet more bodies in her wake, yet Baru is ultimately fighting for the right of everyone to love who they want to love.
Pity anyone who gets in her way.
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