Literature / The Traitor Baru Cormorant

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"Any price. Any sacrifice. It is the only way to take a piece of their power for our own."

Previously known for numerous short stories on science fiction and fantasy magazines, his work with the Freespace mod Blue Planet, and Destiny's Grimoire, Seth Dickinson's debut novel is an extension of his short story "The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds", which has been adapted as the novel's concluding chapter. Do not read this short story if you plan on reading the book, as this short story spoils the novel in full.

Armed with science, economics, and bureaucracy, the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, or the Masquerade as it is called by its detractors, slowly conquers Baru Cormorant's seaside homeland of Taranoke. Baru, lured away by the Empire's promise of a more prosperous society, watches from within the Imperial academy's walls as the Masqerade rewrites Taranoke's culture and criminalizes the island's customs. However, Baru is a savant, talented with the calculus of numbers and power, and she sees that the only way to defeat the Masquerade is by changing it from within.

While the Empire dismantles Baru's island society, Baru dives headlong into Masquerade education, where her talents catch the eye of an Imperial agent. After her graduation, she is selected for an exceptional post as the new Imperial Accountant for the recently conquered feudal nation of Aurdwynn, a powderkeg of sedition and rebellion. In order to earn the power that will free her people, Baru must navigate Aurdwynn's treacherous politics while keeping her true motives and her sexuality hidden, and in doing so learn that the price of liberation will be exacted on her conscience.

As of late 2015 Dickinson is working on a sequel, tentatively titled The Monster Baru Cormorant. It's scheduled for fall 2017; according to Dickinson the date had to be reported because of his suffering from depression.


The following tropes have been found in this work:

  • Arcadia: Baru's home country of Taranoke has shades of it, but this is probably the result of us seeing it through Baru's eyes when she was a child.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Nearly everybody in the world of the novel is portrayed as being of decidedly non-European appearance, including the people of Taranoke, Aurdwynn and even the Masquerade, which is itself racially diverse. Baru herself, as a Taranoki, has brown skin, but the novel never otherwise describes the appearance of the Taranoki (as the novel is told from her point of view, she has no reason to comment on it). There is a nation of pale-skinned people in the far north, but they are a rare and exotic appearance in the Masquerade's sphere of influence.
    • Aminata's descriptions feel vaguely Asiatic.
    • Monochrome Casting is thereby consciously averted.
  • Animal Motifs: Shows up a lot. You have The Stag Duchy, the army of the coyote and later the army of the wolf, as well as the general association of birds with Taranoke and Baru herself.
  • Badass Gay: Tain Hu, Baru's field general. She twice defeats the hapless Imperial governor of Aurdwynn in single combat - first in a duel, then in battle. Notably averted with Baru: While she trains with a sword, she never uses it in anger.
  • The Beard: Baru bullies Bel Latheman into being this for a while. It goes about as well as anything else does, really.
  • Becoming the Mask: Baru fears doing this for all the figurative masks she wears.
  • Brainwashed: The Masquerade has a method of making people into what amounts to human robots that are entirely compliant to their established masters, as well as being deadly warriors.
  • Bury Your Gays: Baru's love interest, Duchess Vultjag, is executed by the Masquerade at the end. Baru might have prevented this, but does not - she considers it necessary to quash rumors of her "tribadist" inclinations, and to prevent the Masquerade's camarilla from blackmailing her with her lover's existence. But, this being something of a Crapsack World, it's not as though anybody gets a happy ending, either.
  • The Chessmaster: Aurdwynn is full of them.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Baru, the titular traitor, is afflicted by this, but more out of necessity than desire. In turn, she betrays her homeland Taranoke by joining the Empire, that Empire by leading Aurdwynn's rebellion, that rebellion by betraying it to the Masquerade, and her lover Tain Hu by ordering her execution.
  • Culture Chop Suey: The Masquerade exhibits features of real-life empires such as those of Britain, France and China. The two former can be recognized in the Masquerade's cultural imperialism, dubious racial science and moral zeal. The Imperial Republic's warship names, which include Kingsbane or Egalitaria, echo Revolution-era French ship names such as Tyrannicide or Droits de l'homme. Aspects of Imperial China found in the Masquerade include its bureaucracy and its exams for obtaining government posts.
  • Counterfeit Cash: It's how Vultjag gets its riches, despite the duchy being the poorest of Aurdwynn.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Baru is torn between her love for her homeland Taranoke and her duties as a newly-minted Imperial technocrat. And then also between all that and her leadership of Aurdwynn's rebellion, as well as between the rebel dukes' desire to have their putative queen marry and found a dynasty, and her attraction to her female field-general Tain Hu.
  • Culture Police: The only values allowed in Imperial lands are Imperial values. Marriages are tightly controlled by the Imperial Jurispotence for eugenics purposes. Promiscuity, religion, and homosexuality are punishable by mutilation and death.
  • Darwinist Desire: The Masquerade wants all people in the Empire to marry for this reason.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Frequently, as the book is in large part about Baru learning to be a Chessmaster.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The methods used by the Masquerade to expand its borders are eerily close to methods used by real-world colonial nations to subjugate a colony's aboriginal peoples.
    • During protests in Aurdwynn, rioters are sprayed with a weak acidic mixture in order to identify them for arrest when they seek treatment for their irritated skin. In the real world, similar tactics (albeit with paint or dye) have been used against protestors in some countries.
  • The Empire: The Imperial Republic of Falcrest, also referred to as the Masquerade or the Empire of Masks.
    • Which sees itself as The Republic: Falcrest's current, nominally republican régime emerged from a bloody revolution against the ruling nobility.
    • Hegemonic Empire: The Masquerade's imperialism is mainly of the cultural and economic variety. Military force is a last resort.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The governor of Aurdwynn and every single one of its dukes and duchesses are either killed in the rebellion or assassinated in the Empire's mop-up afterwards. The only Aurdwynni movers and shakers that survive are Baru and Xate Yawa, the Empire's two direct agents.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: Baru's parents, a mother and two fathers, although since it is her culture she doesn't see it as particularly exotic. The Masquerade, on the other hand, is less pleased.
  • Fantasy World Map: The novel includes one for Aurdwynn.
  • Fatal Flaw: As pointed out multiple times in the narrative, Baru's is viewing other people as static pieces to be played, not individuals with their own agendas playing their own games. It causes her to be blindsided by other people's gambits on multiple occasions.
  • Gambit Pileup: A given, since Baru, the Jurispotence, the thirteen dukes, the Imperial Governor, and the Masquerade at large all have their own plans for Aurdwynn.
  • Grey and Grey Morality: No one is squeaky clean, but no one is outright evil, the villains tending more towards I Did What I Had to Do, Social Darwinist, or unwitting puppets of more powerful rulers utilizing their flaws. By the same token, even the more heroic dukes are manipulative and will turn on each other for the sake of advancement or to defend their people.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Baru's justification for what she does for power, and the whole point of the Hierarchic Qualm:
    "The sword kills, but the arm moves the sword. Is the arm to blame for murder? No. The mind moves the arm. Is the mind to blame? No. The mind has sworn an oath to duty, and that duty moves the mind, as written by the Throne. So it is that a servant of the Throne is blameless."
  • Heel–Face Mole: Baru is leading the rebellion of Aurdwynn against the Masquerade at the behest of the Empire's ruling clique, who prefer rebellions they themselves control to the other kind.
  • Heteronormative Crusader: The Masquerade as an institution, and many of its officials, notably Cairdine Farrier, Baru's mentor. It's implied that the Masquerade's institutional homophobia is in part due to his influence.
  • Higher Education Is for Women: What the Masquerade believes, surprisingly. Their "Incrastic science" holds that the female mind is more suited to abstract thought than the male, so women hold prominent positions in the navy (because navigation is complicated), in mathematics or, in Baru's case, in finance.
  • Insistent Terminology: Loyal servants of the Throne will insist that you address the Masquerade as "The Imperial Republic", or "The Empire of Masks".
  • Kill It with Fire: The Imperial Navy loves burning things with Greek fire (or blowing them up with torpedoes), and the Empire's mastery of chemistry gives them a technological edge over the world's nations.
  • Lady of War: Tain Hu, Duchess Vultjag, one of Aurdwynn's ruling nobles, and a very competent fighter and general.
  • Low Fantasy: Cynical, entirely human and ostensibly magic-less setting where everyone's morals are grey at best, and even wars for independence are laden with greed and machinations.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The actual Emperor is a lobotomized vegetable, and the Imperial Parliament doesn't really get anything done. The Masquerade is run by the committee of paramount masters, two of whom advise Baru throughout the story.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The setting is definitively Hard Fantasy, though mentions of curses and magic appear sporadically, usually framed as superstition and given little credence. Then again Baru's notes at the very end of the novel indicate that there may be supernatural phenomenae on a neighboring continent...
    • Dickinson has said that the magic system in the novel is an economy "simple enough for people to twiddle the knobs and get predictable results."
  • Meaningful Rename: Baru takes the name of "Agonist" on becoming one of the Empire's secret rulers. An agonist is one who takes part in a struggle or contest.
    • A geographic one halfway through the book when Baru's native Taranoke is renamed "Sousward," causing her some distress.
  • Neat Freak: The Incrastic philosophy of the Masquerade is obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness. It is more notorious in their Navy.
  • Noodle Incident: Why Sahaule is called "Horsebane". (What's the name about?)
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Baru, as it turns out. At the behest of the Masquerade's ruling clique, she betrays the very rebellion she orchestrated, as well as her lover, all in order to gain power within the Empire and to enable her to pursue her ultimate goal of liberating her homeland.
  • Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: The Masquerade's committee of Secret Masters is held in balance because each member has dirt on one of the others — deliberately so. Indeed, being blackmailable seems to be one qualification for recruitment.
  • Out-Gambitted: Baru's good, but her more experienced rivals frequently get the best of her.
  • The Unfettered: Baru will do anything to achieve her goal.
  • Trigger Phrase: "Suspire Suspire Suspire", the command word with which one of the Clarified has been conditioned.
  • What the Romans Have Done for Us: The Masquerade will overwrite your culture and government, make you pay for its wars, and mutilate or kill you if your conduct is deemed "unhygienic". But it will provide you with free education, effective healthcare, and sanitation.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Baru and Tain Hu, Duchess Vultjag. The two are attracted to each other, but circumstances are such that neither is able or willing to act on it until near the end of the novel.

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