Nov 252015

the-traitor-baru-cormorantThe Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Synopsis: To overthrow the Empire that devastated her homeland, Baru infiltrates it to become one of its powerful bureaucrats and destroy it from within.

Book Review: The first thing you see in the book is the map (below). And right away the book lets you know this will be different from what you’re used to. Maps always show what is important to the mapmaker. In most fantasy books this is the territory of the journey. The hero’s hometown to the Stronghold of Evil. In between are national borders, the mountains that stop armies, the Dark Forest where the hero is tested. In Traitor Baru, the borders barely matter. They’re loosely roughed in. There are no major physical features, aside from the rivers that facilitate trade. What the map DOES show is political allegiances, economic ties, and resource dependence/abundance. Right away the book is telling you “This is not about wars and movement. This is about political influence, and economic power.” It’s a brilliant way to start a book. Or rather, to start THIS book.

If you like smart characters with smart opponents who manipulate their environments with whatever tools they have – tools which they often go to great lengths to make available to themselves – you will like this book. And by “environments” I do mean physical environment sometimes, but more often the social and political forces that can alter much more around you than you could alter by yourself. This is a book of out-thinking your enemy, and hard choices.

And really, the hard choices is what it all comes down to. I’ve written before about how much I love Seth Dickinson’s short fiction. One of his recurring themes (and certainly present in Traitor Baru) is “How much are you willing to sacrifice, to do the right thing?” How much will you give up to save the innocent from the corrupt? Forget silly things like your body or your life – how much of your soul will you give? Is your very humanity that important, when compared to the world you will be saving?

This theme runs a livewire through my psyche. I cannot get enough of it. Dickinson executes it well… although not quite as well as in his short stories. In his shorts he holds nothing back. The novel Traitor Baru is, surprisingly, very emotionally reserved. One fellow reader speculated that this is an effort to get us to sympathize with Baru’s life trapped in the closet. Not just about her sexuality, but about every single thing she cares about. Her world is lies upon masks upon lies, and she assumes that everyone around her lies just as much as she does. As a result she can never show true emotion, and expects that no one else does either. This makes sense as self-defense, but it hurts the emotional narrative. Another fellow reader speculated that this was necessary as a mercy to the reader, because, if we were too involved with Baru emotionally, most readers would not be able to endure the story (it is a very painful story), and especially not the gut-punch ending (seriously, the ending is fucking amazing). It’s hard enough to read even as emotionally-dampened as it is. Perhaps that’s true? But I want that pain in my fiction, I thrive on it. I was disappointed it wasn’t sharper. A final conjecture was that Baru is at least somewhat autistic, which… duh. Of course she is. That doesn’t mean the emotion needs to be held back from the reader, we’re inside her head.

Also, I really could have used some more visceral scenes of the Empire’s evil. Yes, I get it, colonialism is bad. Agreed. But “colonialism is bad” isn’t emotionally compelling, whereas “watching teeth fly and blood pool as someone kicks my father to death” is. There was a lot of the former and very little of the latter.

So, it’s not a perfect book. But it is still really good. Recommended.


Book Club Review: This book sparked one of the best discussions we’ve had. First, there’s simply so much to discuss. Not just about imperialism and sexuality and technological change either, but ranging across Baru’s choices, her view of the world as a puzzle, and the nature of our humanity. Is there anything that should be off-limits to sacrifice, if the rewards are great enough? At what point does certainty-of-outcomes breakdown enough that you should revert to deontology over utilitarianism? If you somehow exhaust that topic, there’s also stylistic choices that Dickinson made to be discussed–there’s plenty to say about his writing as well as about what was written. Even the people in our group who really disliked the book said this was an amazing discussion, they loved the book club meeting itself, and they were glad they read it and attended to discuss it. I’m not sure you can get a much greater endorsement when evaluating a book for book-club-suitability. HIGHLY Recommended!

Cultural Appropriation Watch! The protagonist is a dark-skinned, gay woman. Seth Dickinson is a white man. I dunno about his sexuality, cuz I don’t know him well enough for that to be any of my damn business. The Appropriation Police would not allow this book to be published. They shame their ancestors, let us hope they repent their ways quickly.

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

  1. “Forget silly things like your body or your life – how much of your soul will you give?”

    See, this is an example of something I profoundly don’t want to read. Just massively don’t want to watch a bunch of guys stuck in a Kaffka Trap, cutting off bits of themselves trying to escape.

    If you want to see the real thing, go sit in any hospital emergency room for a couple hours on a Friday when the welfare checks come out. Having seen it, you may find your taste in books changes.

    • >See, this is an example of something I profoundly don’t want to read.

      I don’t blame you, it’s emotionally harrowing, and certainly not what everyone enjoys for reading material. There’s lots of things I don’t read as well.

      >Having seen it, you may find your taste in books changes.

      You make *all sorts* of assumptions about me. I’m not even going to bother going into them, there’s too many, but it says some interesting things about you.

      However, on a completely different track, I should clarify about the scope of the book. I apologize if I wasn’t clear in my review, but the question the book makes you ask yourself isn’t “How do I make it until my next welfare check”. It’s “How many pieces of myself am I willing to cut off so that there will no longer be these situations in hospital emergency rooms on welfare check day?” As that seems to be the type of misery most potent to you – just how much of yourself are YOU willing to sacrifice, if it would end what you saw?

  2. “You make *all sorts* of assumptions about me. I’m not even going to bother going into them, there’s too many, but it says some interesting things about you.”

    It’s not personal. It’s just that I’m old, mean as shit, and I’ve seen too many fools in my life. The number of people I’ve been forced to work with over the years who will believe 12 impossible things before breakfast disheartens me. I’m not saying you’re one of them, mind you. Just that they are legion.

    The damage they cause is profound, and the emergency room is a good example of that damage. One that I am very familiar with.

    “… just how much of yourself are YOU willing to sacrifice, if it would end what you saw?”

    How much did I, is what you should be asking. Why else would I be as cranky as I am on the subject? I lost some skin, picked up some scar tissue. Saw numerous comrades do the same. I’m no saint, obviously, but that’s not the point is it? It isn’t about me, or you.

    The point is, no matter how much any individual sacrifices, it makes no difference. The juggernaut rumbles on, leaving the human wreckage behind just the same. The Great March of idealistic hippies (like me!) through the institutions gave us bigger, worse institutions. Human sacrifice and good intentions do not change emergency rooms.

    What does? Antibiotics. The germ theory of disease. Transistors. The Industrial Model. Florence Nightingale. Tax cuts. Broken Windows policy. Shall-issue CCW permits.

    Technological and organizational inventions impact emergency rooms. Changing the paradigm upon which a structure of knowledge is based impacts human suffering. Innovation. Invention. Creation. Freedom. These things change the world.

    Adding more sacrifice and suffering to the pile changes -nothing-, and is completely, utterly wasted effort.

    In literature, there is an argument to be made that George Orwell did us no favors with 1984. The people it was meant to stop have been treating it like a guide book on how to create Oceania, because that’s where they want to go. They are deterred not at all by the same vision that gives people like me nightmares.

    The Hobbit, for contrast, has had quite the reverse effect. Everybody wants to be Bilbo. Nobody wants to be Gollum.

    The shelves of bookstores are filled with ‘The Traitor Baru Cormorant’, which shares its dystopian tone with 1984, Ancillary Justice, and a host of others both good and bad. The noble hero reforms the evil empire through personal sacrifice and morally questionable tactics, harrowing their own souls for the greater good. Such books win awards, shelf space and lead the literary culture. I can walk in to Chapters and find eight examples on any given day.

    Where’s The Hobbit? Where’s the hero that defeats evil by fighting it everywhere he finds it, and wins because his actions are morally right? Where’s the inventor that comes up with The Cure and makes a zillion dollars too? Where’s the scientist that makes First Contact with aliens and -doesn’t- fuck it all up, because he used his brain instead of his dick?

    Nowhere! Not to be found. What is to be found is lots and lots of people saying things like “The Hobbit is crap because Tolkein was a racist/bigot/homophobe white cismale!” Not -you-, but you’re familiar with the type. The kind that will believe 12 impossible things before breakfast. So many and so loudly that I get eight instances of ‘The Traitor Baru Cormorant’ and ‘Have Spacesuit, Will Travel’ would not get published this year.

    Hence my discontent.

    • I would like to “Like” this entire comment. I basically agree with all of it. Except I like my fiction dark, so /shrug. Difference in taste.

      I disagree that “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” wouldn’t get published nowadays, except in the literal sense. Books like it are published every year, I just don’t read them much. But there’s a whole contingent of Puppy-friendly readers/authors who can point you at recent good ones. :) I hear Correia often has something to recommend.

      However, if it’s “the hero that defeats evil by fighting it everywhere he finds it, and wins because his actions are morally right, the inventor that comes up with The Cure and makes a zillion dollars too” that you’re looking for, I personally would point you to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which is all those things, and very fun to boot! Available free in its entirety at the link.

      • I’ve been commenting at Vile 770 too much. At 410 comments about Larry Correia’s MHI branded AR15 lower, I was the first one to say the word ‘Muslim’ regarding the San Bernadino shooting they were all braying about since it happened.

        Good on ya.

        • Out of curiosity, why do you follow File 770 if it infuriates you? I avoid sites that enrage me, and it’s made my life much better. You might lose some of that crankiness if you don’t go seeking out people to be cranky at. :)

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