This post contains MASSIVE spoilers for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. Please note that this is one of the few books were that is actually a really big deal. The ending changes a lot about what you thought you knew, and knowing that beforehand changes how you will read the book. If you have any desire at all to read the book, turn back now.
If you don’t have any desire to read the book, but have time to read a short story, consider reading the short story before you continue. Because, again, the spoilers I’m going to be getting into are really big, and I would hate to deny anyone the opportunity to read such an amazing piece of fiction unspoiled.
You know those people who go to see a movie adapted from a book, and then turn up their nose afterwards and say “The book was better”? Everyone hates those people. Of course the first medium you experienced the story in will always be better! Get over yourself! I really, really hate to be that person. But the Traitor Baru short story was better than the Traitor Baru novel. The novel was still good! Just not as good. I’ve been trying to figure out why. And I succeeded.
Well ok, I have a half-assed theory. But it’s something.
The Traitor Baru short story takes place after The Twist. We only see Baru after she’s betrayed everyone she loves for the greater good. Everyone who ever cared for her despises her now (if they’re still alive), and the populace of the country she was fighting for consider her a villain. This is all conveyed indirectly, via precision-guided sentences that get the point across as emotionally as possible with as little word-count as possible. This leaves us to fill in all the blanks. And what do we do when we fill in the blanks? We fall back on Tropes. Or Cultural Myths, or Archetypes, or whatever you want to call them.
What this means is that Baru was the Rebel Princess in my mind. The Leia or the Xena – a shining leader, beloved by her lieutenants and loyal soldiers. When she betrayed them, it was like Leia killing Luke, Han, and Chewie in cold blood, and giving their corpses to the Emperor. It was all the people of those planets, fighting for the Rebels, suddenly under the Empire’s heel again, and he is NOT happy with what’s been going on. Seriously bad times for all.
Likewise, I filled in Baru’s relationship with her lover as deep and passionate, having withstood all the typical fantasy trials. When Baru gave Tain Hu up, Baru was The Dread Pirate Roberts/Wesley, handing over Buttercup to Humperdink.
That was why the brain injury was such a central part of the short story. It was Baru’s escape mechanism. She could turn her blind side on her betrayals, and she would forget about them. She could turn away from her lover, and she wasn’t there anymore. It was the Novocain for her soul, the past-annihilating numbness that allowed her to live with what she’d done. Without that escape mechanism, she likely would have killed herself already. At the very least, she’d be an ineffectual infiltrator, since her guilt-wracked conscience would give her away.
And that was what made the ending so simultaneously heart-wrenching and gratifying. In the end, Baru turns toward her lover. She could look away, have the execution erased from her mind, but instead she watches as Tain Hu is dashed against the rocks over and over. It is an acceptance. An acceptance of Tain Hu’s sacrifice, and her love. It it’s Baru’s moment of growth, where she realizes she is strong enough to continue forward. It is her reaffirmation that her goal (freedom from the evil empire) is worth the price she has paid and is paying. Fuck them. She can overcome even this. They will have nothing to use against her.
(I also love this story because it acknowledges that love for your loved ones is a weapon that your enemies can use against you, which is a deep and unreasonable fear of mine, and which is why I’ve kept myself emotionally isolated much of my life. This story is an affirmation that you can love, and have that love used against you, and still not be destroyed. It’s like the counter-thesis to that Iain Banks novel that I won’t name because I don’t want to spoil yet another novel. Point is, I love this story, and I love Seth Dickinson for writing it.)
The “problem” with the novel is that it doesn’t conform to the standard fantasy tropes.
“What?” you say. “How is that a problem? I’m sick and tired of all the standard fantasy tropes!” I agree, I am too. And obviously Seth Dickinson was as well. Can you imagine sitting down to write 100,000 words of fantasy to pound out another cliché Rebels vs Empire story? Ain’t nobody want to do that, least of all an aspirational rising talent! So instead he wrote an interesting plot, full of interesting characters, with lots of intrigue and political wrangling, and very shrewd and intelligent gambits. It’s a good story, and it would make a good novel, except it is supposed to bring us back to the Baru of the short story.
I had come into the novel expecting to see some sort of Star Wars-like story, with strong bonds between the rebels, and a passionate ongoing romance with Tain Hu. Instead we see rebels that are constantly infighting, suspicious, looking to back-stab each other, and are clearly using Baru simply to further their own agendas. I don’t mind as much when these people are betrayed. The empire, rather than being typical Fantasy Nazis, are distasteful and sometime horrifying, but ultimately more pragmatic than pure evil, and they bring a lot of good things to the people they conquer to offset some of the evil & oppression. Tain Hu, rather than being the love of Baru’s life, is kept at a distance the entire book, and they don’t even confess their love to each other until just a few pages before the betrayal. That’s not Wesley and Buttercup. It’s more akin to Trinity’s confession to Neo.
I was asked in my book club “What was the brain injury in the last chapter for?”, which I think is a great encapsulation of the problem with the novel. In the short story it is a crucial aspect of the story, the characters, and the resolution. In the novel it shows up so briefly that it doesn’t have any narrative weight. It feels extraneous. The short story depends, ultimately, on a subversion of classic fantasy tropes. We already have the entire Rebel Princess story in our minds, and Traitor Baru takes that story, turns it upside down, then puts it right-side up again, while stabbing you repeatedly and telling you “This is what it takes to win in the real world. If your fantasy stories were real, these are the choices your heroes would be facing. Isn’t this a better story?” AND IT IS! When Dickinson wrote the novel, he kept that Rationalist view. He wrote a fantasy story that would make sense if it was in the real world. Not Fantasy Nazis and Shining Heroes, but real people and realpolitik. And that blunts what made the Traitor Baru story such a knife-in-the-heart to me. The betrayal at the end of the novel didn’t feel like someone amputating their own limbs. It wasn’t a loss of everything good. It was just another manipulation in a book full of manipulations and treachery. A bigger one than any we had seen previous, of course. But not unusual. It was true to character, rather than a betrayal of our ideals. I didn’t feel it would lead to suicidal levels of guilt and self-hatred.
That being said, I HATE to have said all this. I contemplated for many days before posting this. Because (as Seth has said in the past) nowadays no one engages short fiction. Traitor Baru is excellent, and I’ve recommended it a few times to people. But I’ve never posted about it at length deconstructing what made it great, until the novel came out. The Traitor Baru novel has been mentioned many times on many “Best of 2015” lists, but was the short story on any such lists? Even though the short story is better? For that matter, do you recall seeing very many “Best Short Story” lists ever, at NPR or IO9 or wherever you get your news? Nope. People simply value novels far more than short stories, and it’s a damned shame. It’s likely that the Traitor Baru novel has gotten far more reads than the Traitor Baru story, even though the story is less than 1/10th the length, has been out far longer, and is freely available to everyone online! (and IMHO is better)
I even feel guilty trying to point people at the story rather than the novel, because Dickinson has got to pay his rent and buy food, and short stories don’t pay. If you want to make a living writing, you have to write novels. Each person that I convince to read the short story instead of the novel is money I am taking out of Dickinson’s pocket. :( And, if I was given the choice to read either the story or the novel, I would tell past-me to read the story instead, and pay more for the privilege than I would have paid for the novel. It is a far more efficient use of my time, and I am willing to pay extra to get the same emotional payoff (“entertainment” as I call it) in less time. It leaves me more free time to pursue my other pursuits.
So, if you really like the Traitor Baru short story, please do not punish Seth Dickinson for his genius. Buy the novel, to say thank you, even if you don’t read it. And, next time you read a truly amazing short work, please consider purchasing something from the author, even if you’ll never read it, to support their work.