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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.
    • 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.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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), 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, and a very competent fighter and general.
  • 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 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 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?)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.