The Traitor Baru Cormorant
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Sometimes I blitz through books because I need to know what happens ASAP, and sometimes I do it because I want to finish the book just for the sake of saying I’ve read it. Baru Cormorant falls into the latter category.
The story begins on the tropical island of Taranoke, home of the titular Baru Cormorant. Her mother, Pinion, is a huntress; her fathers, Solit and Salm, are a blacksmith and a shield-bearer, respectively. As a child, Baru grasps the economic principles leveraged against her people by the invasive Empire of Masks (also called the Masquerade), but she doesn’t fully comprehend the danger to her family until Salm goes missing, presumably kidnapped and murdered by Masquerade soldiers. While Pinion wants to fight the Masquerade directly, Baru chooses a more subtle path: she throws herself into her studies at the school established by the Masquerade for Taranoki children, with the goal of working her way up to the top and gaining enough power to save her home from colonization.
Meanwhile, the Masquerade is very busy. It wrecks the Taranoki economy, forcing it to rely on Masquerade currency; it brings a sweeping plague, which decimates the Indigenous population, and enforces a quarantine that separates schoolchildren from their families for years; it indoctrinates Taranoki children in Incrasticism, a neat byword for eugenics and homophobia, and teaches them the Imperial language Aphalone. Undaunted, Baru excels in school and aces the Imperial civil service exam at the age of eighteen. She expects to be sent to the Imperial stronghold Falcrest to serve in Parliament, but is instead named Imperial Accountant and sent to Aurdwynn, a cold land ruled by warring dukes. Her only friend is Muire Lo, her personal secretary and a not-so-secret Falcresti spy whose main job is to keep an eye on her. It sucks, but it’s not a total loss: Muire Lo turns out to be touchingly loyal to her, she catches the eye of warrior duchess Tain Hu, and she finds she has just enough power to crash the Aurdwynni economy.
The decimation of the economy is supposed to bring Aurdwynn’s dukes to heel before they can collect enough money to mutiny, and for three years it does seem to have that effect. Baru – already at a significant social disadvantage as a young woman of color in a position of power, and as a suspected lesbian in an aggressively homophobic society – becomes a social pariah among the elite, but the common people, who benefitted from her policies, embrace her and begin to call her “the fairer hand.” Lonely and bored, Baru begins to turn to alcohol, frequenting seedy establishments by night and hammering away at her job by day. Things continue in this vein until she is visited by a man named Apparitor, who identifies himself as a member of the shadowy group that rules the Empire behind the scenes. After a brief conversation, in which he tells her what the Empire wants her to do with Aurdwynn, she abandons her post and falls in with the rebelling dukes.
Despite all reservations on the part of the dukes, Baru does quite well as a rebel. As the fairer hand, she is their branding: the people recognize her, and she quickly becomes the queen of the rebellion. As the former Imperial Accountant, she takes the rebellion’s finances in hand and runs them with military efficiency. While male dukes swirl around her, courting her favor and trying to turn themselves into her unasked-for rebel king, she grows closer and closer to Tain Hu, who becomes her field-general. Following a harsh winter full of foraging and guerrilla warfare, Baru and the rebel dukes win a bloody battle against the governor of Aurdwynn, an Imperial official, and his loyalist dukes. In the aftermath of their victory, Baru finally declares her love for Tain Hu, and they have one night together. The morning after, Baru expels Tain Hu from the rebel army and orders her to ride north and never return, then meets up with Apparitor, who removes her from Aurdwynn while the surviving rebel dukes are assassinated. Her extraction goes mostly to plan, but with one wrinkle: one of the dukes catches on, and his guardsman manages to land a vicious head injury, leaving her blind on one side. Nor is Tain Hu safe: despite Baru’s last-minute attempt to protect her, Apparitor catches her and brings her back. Baru has the option to beg for Tain Hu’s life, but, following a painful final conversation, she watches coldly as she is drowned in the sea. After passing this final test, Baru steps into her new role as Agonist, the newest member of the ruling council, while the Empire takes control of Aurdwynn.
Tain Hu is a badass. She keeps an army more or less in order during a difficult winter, wins a massive victory against staggering odds, and then knowingly sacrifices herself for Baru’s advancement, gambling on her ability to destroy the Empire from within. That is the best I can say about this book, which I found difficult to read – not because it was particularly challenging, but because it was dull, and its dullness made it seem longer than it was. If I hadn’t stuck to my reading schedule, I don’t know if I would have finished it. The writing is fine and I liked the humor, but for some reason the book really did not grip me. There were so many characters and they were so lightly drawn that I couldn’t always keep all the dukes straight, and it was a struggle to remember who some of them were when they showed up. (Except Unuxekome. I kinda liked Unuxekome.) I am also ambiguous on the settings: I thought Taranoke was Hawai’i-inspired, but none of the birds mentioned in the first chapter seem to be native to Hawai’i, though a couple of them can be found in Australia or New Zealand. Others are found in colder climates, which seems a bit out of step with a tropical island.
The main problem is that I really am not interested in reading a series about a character who, in her quest to take down the enemy, has set herself on a path to become the enemy. That just sounds like an unpleasant time all around. While I did not predict the ending, neither was it entirely surprising. It might have been more effective if Baru’s sudden obsession with the Aurdwynni rebellion had been a tad more believable. This is the crux of the matter: whatever the events that led her to become a rebel queen, and even if Aurdwynn was technically supposed to become her new home, it seemed very odd that she would devote herself to a rebellion in a country that was not her own. It wasn’t really in character for her to get so completely sidetracked by something that would have no effect on her goals. It seemed equally strange that she was continually ready to send her dukes on suicide missions just to get them out of her hair, though of course in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Whatever the case, I had trouble buying into the set-up, which dampened the twist of her final betrayal. She never did seem like a people’s hero, much though she wanted to think of herself as one. Baru is many things, but altruistic is not one of them.
Despite my hopes for this book, it fizzled early for me. The story was slow and surprisingly boring, and the characters felt less like people and more like vehicles for the manipulation and betrayal that form the backbone of the book. Baru was originally described to me as a Tyrion Lannister-type character, but, while the resemblance is definitely there, she wasn’t enough to keep me excited, even though I liked her in the beginning. She’s smart and resourceful, funny sometimes, and somewhat generically feisty. She’s just not terribly interesting, and her story is one long parade of plots within plots within plots. That barely worked for Dune, and it very certainly did not work here. It felt like it was complex for the sake of being complex, even if all the different plots eventually converged in a way that made sense, and its reliance on the “HA, gotcha” device completely sapped whatever interest I had in the story. If I were into this sort of thing, maybe I’d feel differently about all the double- and triple- and quadruple-crossing, but there’s only so much I can take without getting whiplash. It’s all just way too much to keep track of, and I will not be continuing with this series.