Mar 262019

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Synopsis: Having infiltrated their ruling elite, Baru begins working to destroy the nation that conquered her homeland.

Book Review: I’ve been a fan of Seth Dickinson for many years, so I was expecting something pretty good from him. I read the prologue and I was not disappointed! Good stuff! Then I read the first chapter, and I put the book down. And I went and got a drink, and then another one, and ended up just drinking way too much that night, and not coming back to the book for a couple days. Because I realized while reading it that I will never, in my life, write anything this beautiful and this moving… and it’s kinda crushing.

I don’t want to over-hype the book, because nothing kills a story like insane expectations that no work in the real world could actually meet. But this is astoundingly good writing, and gorgeous prose, and I love it. It’s the first time I’ve read a middle-book in a series that I liked more than the first book.

As always, Dickinson does a great job of bringing you into the mind of the protagonist. You don’t just feel her emotions, you follow her thought patterns. Everything is translated into the logic of economics and capitalism. He explains what a hash-function is, in a fantasy setting, in a way that is both easy to understand AND completely in-character for the setting, AND is a moving and relevant part of the story, which I wouldn’t have believed was possible if I hadn’t seen it done myself. Without ever saying anything about the modern era, Dickinson says a lot about neoliberalism and the Molochian forces grinding away our humanity.

And in the occasional chapters where he goes into a different character’s POV, Dickenson shows us the world from their startlingly-different but instantly relatable view. I was surprised how quickly and intimately I felt my perspective on what was happening change by having it presented in such a viscerally relatable manner. Dickenson is a master of putting himself (and the reader) in the mind of someone different and also correct in their way. Call it steel-manning or call it true empathy, it’s awesome either way.

The biggest issue with this story is the large cast. There are a LOT of people who matter, with many existing relationships, and some of them with multiple names. It was sometimes hard to remember who was who. I recommend taking quick notes. It is absolutely worth it.

One of my favorite books now. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was as thrilled with this book as I was. Dickenson doesn’t coddle his reader, and expects you to put in effort. One fellow club member said he’s almost like Peter Watts in his attitude of ‘Keep up or drown, I don’t have time to talk-down to you,’ except “not as bad as Watts.” :) I don’t think they meant it as a compliment, but…

Another member felt that Dickinson was a bit over the top in some respects, and absolutely relentless in others. Be ye warned – the title of this book is accurate. Baru is not called “The Monster” without reason. If you do not wish to feel the things that would drive a monster, this probably isn’t a good read for you. There is nothing gratuitous, but there is a lot of Grim here. I, of course, love this. And there is absolutely a point to it, it is worth taking this journey. But I can see how it could be overwhelming.

Given the beauty of the prose, and the interesting twists that will spark conversation, and the things the author is saying/implying about what we value today and what we sacrifice in the pursuit of it… this makes for a lot of good talking. It’s work, and it’s not easy to read, which probably makes it a harder sell for book clubs. Check in with your group first to make sure they’re up for a harder read. Nonetheless: Recommended.

  6 Responses to “SF/F Review – The Monster Baru Cormorant”

  1. Thanks for the recommendation. The last time you tagged a book as one of your favorites (Vellum) I read it and thought it was great. I’m going to read this, but before this I need to read the first one. My question, is, should I read the short story being reading the first book, or should I jump into the book and just experience the world of the books as its own world uninfluenced by the short story? Thanks.

    • You should definitely NOT read the short story. It gives away major plot points that happen in the first book. It is beautiful as well, but my enjoyment of the first book was reduced (based on comparisons with the rest of my book club) by having read the short story beforehand.

  2. Sounds like it might be similar to Worm. Would you recommend this series for fans of Worm?

    • I don’t know, I haven’t read Worm. ^^; I know that makes me an outlier among my reading peers, and I feel bad about it. But after reading 6 or 7 arcs, I gave up. I love everything about it that isn’t the combat scenes. The combat scenes are good, but they’re like 70%+ of the book, and I was just so bored with them after a while. Like, I want the personal conflicts. The drama. That stuff was *amazing*. But the pages upon pages of powers interacting and people fighting each other was just tiresome, and at 2.8M words, I wasn’t willing to keep going. I keep hearing about it from my friends, and maybe someday I’ll knuckle down and read the rest of it.

      From what I’ve heard from my friends tho, it does sound like Baru is quite similar to Taylor. :)

  3. So I finished reading through the original Traitor and then Monster over the past few days. Both and really good, but I think I liked the first more. That preference aside though, one thing that I was surprised not to find in your review was a discussion of how different the two books were. Maybe if your experience is reading book one, waiting 4 years for book two to be published and then reading that it won’t jump out at you so much, but reading both books back to back over a single week the differences really leap out.
    The perspective jumping in Monster is well done in the sense that the chapters from other characters perspectives are both believable and illuminating, but it makes for a very different experience. Traitor is very much a book you read from inside Baru’s head and Monster is a story you watch unfold that includes Baru as a main character. The other major difference is that it really feels like a different genre. Traitor is a fairly realistic work of medieval fantasy, like the parts of Game of Thrones that don’t include dragons or ice wights. Monster is more over the top and more stylized, and feels like it has more of an animie aesthetic (but a good one, Full Metal Alchemist, Monster, or Samurai X rather than Naruto or DBZ). It was a little jarring to jump directly from one to the other, but once I got used to it and accepted it the book was very interesting and enjoyable.
    Thanks again for the recommendation. I’m excited for the rest of the series to come out.

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