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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.

The sequel, titled The Monster Baru Cormorant, was released in October 2018.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: Baru spends the first part of the novel as the Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn, levying taxes and such on behalf of Falcrest — a vital part of the colonial apparatus to extract wealth from the country.
  • 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. So is Baru. Her recurring flaw is seeing people as pieces on a board, to be moved as she wishes, without accounting for the fact that they're players in their own right with their own conflicting ambitions.
  • Child Prodigy: Baru is very clever when she's first seen as a seven-year-old child, able to ask questions to merchants about economics. She is seen as a savant as school, though there are still some subjects she is bad at.
  • 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. All of this, so she can set the stage for one last betrayal that will annihilate the Masquerade from within.
  • Combat by Champion: In Taranoke pre-Masquerade, when the coastal and plains people had a dispute they would send champions to fight rather than having all-out war.
  • Culture Chop Suey: By design, no culture in the book can be mapped directly to any one culture in real life. 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 theories, 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, and it uses a variety of insidiously peaceful methods to write over indigenous values with its own. Marriages are tightly controlled by the Imperial Jurispotence for eugenics purposes. And though force is usually a last resort, promiscuity, religion, and homosexuality are punishable by brainwashing, mutilation, and death.
  • Darwinist Desire: The Masquerade carefully manages who in the Empire is allowed to marry who for this reason. Part of its understanding of biology is that every ethnic group has its own specialized advantages and disadvantages compared to other ethnic groups, and that those traits can be combined or bred out by breeding those groups together — which is also a good way to enforce cultural homogeneity!
  • Defensive Feint Trap: Unuxekome tries to attack the Masquerade's navy, and when the Masquerade navy are unable to protect their transports they seem to retreat. Unuxekome's navy goes for the transports, only for them to turn out to be torpedoes and the "retreated" navy to take the opportunity to regroup and attack from all sides.
  • Defiant Strip: After having a Clarified observer set on her as a 24/7 bodyguard/privacy violation/check on her loyalty, Baru tries to do this as she changes clothes (as a native of Taranoke she wasn’t raised with nudity taboos), but “shame had come into her over the past few years” and she’s unable to face him naked. Not that it matters to him, being Clarified.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Frequently, as the book is in large part about Baru learning to be a Chessmaster. See Fatal Flaw, below.
  • 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's "treatments" for sexual deviancy look a lot like conversion therapy.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: It's Baru's whole deal. And Xate Yawa's.
  • 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.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It turns out that the traitor to the rebellion is the titular character in the book named "The Traitor Baru Cormorant".
  • 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.
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: Averted, the Masquerade is a republic and that doesn't stop it from having imperialist ambitions, while Aurdwynn is ruled by dukes and the ultimate plan for the rebellion is to be led by Baru as a queen. However the dukes aren't shown as ideal for Aurdwynn either, with most of them oppressing their serfs.
  • 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 most heroic dukes are manipulative, feudal and will turn on each other for the sake of advancement.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Muire Lo, Baru’s aide, is implied to develop a crush on her after years of working closely with her during her stint as Aurdwynn’s chief economist. However, not only is he too professional to bring it up, he’s also aware she’s a lesbian.
  • 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."
  • 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), bureaucracy, academia and (as in Baru's case) 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, whether with regular incendiaries or their infamous Navy Burn
  • Lady of War: Tain Hu, Duchess Vultjag, one of Aurdwynn's ruling nobles, is described as both graceful and a very competent fighter and general.
  • Led by the Outsider: Baru becomes the leader of Aurdwynn's rebellion and the prospective queen despite being a former Masquerade functionary born in Taranoke.
  • Let No Crisis Go to Waste: Duchess Nayauru takes advantage of the rebellion while having no desire to join it, attacking he neighboring Duchess Ihuake so she can take power in her land while excusing it with the idea that she is fighting on the Masquerade's behalf against a neighbor who harbored rebels.
  • Lord Country: All the dukes and duchesses of Aurdwynn are named after their duchies to the point where the names of the duchies are used as if they were their personal names: Duke Oathsfire of Oathsfire becomes just Oathsfire, Duchess Nayauru of Nayauru becomes just Nayauru, and so on. The only exception is Duchess Tain Hu of Vultjag, who sports a first and last name but is also vastly more important to Baru.
  • 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.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: During the last climactic battle, the Imperial forces roll out hwacha - cart and ship-mounted multiple rocket launchers.
  • Magic Feather: Before Baru takes the civil service exam that marks her graduation from school and will determine her career opportunities for the rest of her life, Farrier slips her a vial of water mixed with an attention-sharpening drug he says all the Faculties use. After the exam, Farrier playfully asks if the placebo he gave her helped. Subverted, though: Baru never drank it, and crushed the exam anyways.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The Emperors are lobotomized vegetables who are disposed of after their term of service is done, 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, and for whom the whole novel is Baru's entry exam.
  • 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 gets called Baru Fisher while joining the Aurdwynn's rebellion, switching her name from a fishing animal found in her homeland of Taranoke to one found in Aurdwynn, representing her Going Native. 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.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The opening of the book features Baru as a child with her parents, when she first encounters the Masquerade, and quickly goes through h er adolescence in the Masquerade's schools.
  • Neat Freak: The Incrastic philosophy of the Masquerade is obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness on a level that goes well beyond physical sanitation and into mental and moral grounds, leading to their fascination with eugenics and psychological conditioning. It is more notorious in their Navy.
  • Noodle Incident: Why Sahaule is called "Horsebane". (What's the name about?)
  • Non-Heteronormative Society: People in Taranoke regularly have multiple fathers; Baru herself had a mother and two fathers. People in Aurdwynn before the Masquerade took over also are mentioned to have often had men or women marrying each other.
  • 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.
  • Outside Man, Inside Man: Tain Hu and Baru are set up in this way, respectively, with them having a respect and love for each other but Baru arguing the Masquerade can only be changed from within and Tain Hu believing there are some things not worth changing from within. Baru later comes over to Tain Hu's side, subverting this, but Double Subverted when this all turns out to be part of Baru's plan to draw out traitors to prove her worth to change the empire from within after all.
  • The Philosopher King: Or rather philosopher duke; Lyxaxu has a reputation as a cunning but idealistic philosopher concerned with the common good. Time has made him more cynical, though, as philosophical precepts of caring for everyone had failed to prevent his own people from starving.
  • The Plague: Plague spreads on Taranoke and kills many people after the Masquerade arrives.
  • Prestige Peril: Baru quickly finds out upon becoming Aurdwynn's imperial accountant that the last two people in her job met violent ends - first Ffare Tanifel was executed for treason, and then Su Olonori was assassinated presumably for refusing the offer to commit treason. The first half of the book is about Baru trying to maneuver well enough to avoid the same happening to her.
  • Sea Mine: Naval mines were invented by the Oriati, one of Falcrest’s chief rivals. Most prominently, they’re deployed to kick off Baru’s betrayal of the Masquerade, used to sink Falcresti tax ships so the materials they carry can be used to fund her rebellion. Notably, they don’t work by blasting holes in ships — the blast is to displace all the water the ship is sitting on and being supported by, causing it to split under its own weight.
  • Secretly Earmarked for Greatness: The title character has been groomed since childhood to join the camarilla that secretly rules the empire of Falcrest, after a chance conversation with one of its undercover members (in which she pointed out the economic methods Falcrest was using to colonize her homeland) alerted them to her potential. As she grows up, she's aware she has a powerful patron with high hopes for her, but she has no idea how powerful he truly is, or how high those hopes extend. The events of the book are effectively her qualifying exam, seeing if she has what it takes to manipulate and control an entire nation — one she wasn't entirely aware she was taking until years into her office.
  • Symbolic Mutilation: In the final battle, Baru suffers a head wound that results in partial cortical blindness - in other words, she ends up with a physical blindside to match the tactical one she demonstrated throughout the book. In addition, the wound resembles the sacrifice Odin made to gain wisdom.
  • The Unfettered: Baru will do anything to achieve her goal.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Despite the narration being solely from her perspective, Baru often leaves out parts of her plans so then reader will be surprised when they work, notably the ending, where she never disclosed the fact that she was planning to betray the rebellion all along. The one time she does declare her plan to dispense with all subtlety and just kill Nayauru, Autr and Sahaule, while it is successful the suspense is preserved by how she got Unuxekome to do it and had no knowledge of how he would actually carry it out.
  • Too Clever by Half: Baru is very cunning and clever, but her skill often leads her to be too confident in her planning and see others as pieces that can be manipulated rather than having their own plans which means it catches her off-guard when Duchess Nayauru uses allying with the Masquerade against the rebellion as an opportunity to go after Ihuake instead of doing what she expected and being pressured into joining.
  • Trigger Phrase: "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. This is part of what makes it so dangerous.
  • 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.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Baru notes that Unuxekome tends to think of himself as the hero of an epic story, which she uses to manipulate him like getting him to attack the Masquerade's navy when she knows he will fail.
  • Young and in Charge: Baru is only 18 years old when she's given a lot of power as the imperial accountant of Aurdwynn, and people often think she's too young to do her job competently.
  • You Killed My Father: A big part of Baru's grievance against the Masquerade is her father Salm's disappearance, presumably caused by them.