Saturday, June 19, 2021

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Who could resist the premise "genius lesbian uses intrigue and math to save her polyamourous homeland from an evil colonial empire"?

Given such a unique pitch, I was surprised how strikingly similar the first 140 pages of The Traitor Baru Cormorant were to Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire: smart gay woman from a close-knit far-flung community is appointed to a powerful government position in the empire after the mysterious murder of her predecessor, alone but for a clever aide to help her figure out both the foreign culture and the ongoing political machinations.

Unfortunately for Traitor Baru, the contrast with A Memory Called Empire serves only to highlight its flaws. The empire of Baru's world conquers the world, exterminating gay people, enforcing an extensive eugenics breeding program, and improving record-keeping as it gobbles up cultures. It is very clearly capital E Evil, and nearly every citizen of the empire that we meet is either a political puppetmaster or a puppet. A Memory Called Empire's Mahit finds herself trying to protect her people from the Teixcalaan empire while also loving parts of the empire: its people, its culture, its literature. This contrast adds tension, but also presents a more relatable empire. The biggest empire of the 21st century is an oppressive colonial power with some wonderful people and a great canon, including notable works like Casa Blanca and Bojack Horseman.

The flat world-building extends also to Aurdwynn, the province brimming with rebellion to which Baru is assigned as Imperial Accountant. There are hints at interesting designs—the druidic Ilykari, or the Unsullied-like Clarified, for example—but it felt like all the scenes characterizing the minor characters (excepting, perhaps, Muire Lo, Tain Hu, and Xate Olake) and describing the Aurdwynni culture and history were cropped to keep the novel to a tidy 399 pages. Aurdwynn could be any fantasy country. The dukes could be fully summarized with a tagline and never developed personality beyond that: "the philosophical one", "the sailor one", "the one that collects handsome baby daddies." The result is a story packed with political intrigue and twists where I don't care about any of the players, nor do I really care about the fate of the country. The exception to this is the slow burn relationship between Baru and Duchess Tain Hu; the two have great chemistry and their scenes together are adorable. But because such long swathes of the book were low emotional impact, the book was somehow too long for it to be a tight story of a savant accountant trying to out-maneuver seasoned politicians to save her home, and too short for a compelling narrative about how economics and the personalities of political leaders shape the course of a revolution.

Baru was an enjoyable protagonist. Her weapons of war are unconventional and its fun to watch her wield them: controlling inflation to stop a rebellion, using annual tax forms to discern loyalties, identifying political ambitions through sales of commodity goods. She's very aware of the importance of keeping up her metaphorical (and sometimes literal) mask: she must project power and the right sort of ambitions, and she must hide her sexual orientation and her loyalty to Taranoke. The first person point of view gives us an intimate perspective from which to watch her calculations about which facial expressions to make, or what information to reveal when, and see her react to realizing when she's made mistakes and let her mask slip, or developed more attachment to people and places than she had intended. Still, this intimate perspective is inconsistently applied—we know she has made a deal with the shadow cabinet behind the imperial throne, but not what it is. This separation between Baru and the reader seems (to me, at least) intended to allow for a plot twist, rather than say anything about the nature of the mask between Baru and the reader. I think this would have been more effective if Baru was aware of the reader, taunting us a little with her unreliable narrator perspective.

The end of this book, the first of a planned trilogy, is dark and bleak. The Falcrest empire asks Baru to foment a rebellion then betray it. The Empire crushes the hope of the Aurdwynni people for generations to come, and Baru gets the approval of the Empire and the power that comes with it. This is the way the Empire operates: convince people there is no point in rebelling:

In Falcrest, in the Metademe, they condition prisoners just so: permit escape. Offer a rescuer, a collaborator. Slip a key in with the food. Let them come close to freedom, let them feel real triumph—they would not let me this far! This is the crux: give them the taste of victory, the certainty that this cannot be part of the game. And then snatch it away. The collaborator betrays them. The key will not open the outermost door. With enough repetition, most prisoners learn to ignore a key, an open door, a whisper to run. Led out onto the street, they will wait to be returned to their cells. After a time, they begin to teach new prisoners the same.

Her rebellion, the one to save her home country of Taranoke, will be different, Baru tells herself. The costs to the Aurdwynn people are worth it—and actually this brief, squashed Aurdwynni rebellion saves Aurdwynni lives in the long run.

Still, I am interested in where the author will take this theme over the course of the next books. Perhaps the mathematical and rational to a fault Baru will need to inspire hope in her people, inspire belief that there is a better solution and that it is possible to get there. How does one go about this? What is the answer to "well, there's no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, so I just live my life and don't think too hard about it"?

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