Here is my two-word review of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant: Oh, fuck.
This can be read on multiple levels.
For instance: oh, fuck that was wrenching. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is set in two countries under the yoke of a colonialist empire, the Masquerade. The Masquerade is, on the face of it, an enlightened republic, bringing meritocracy, wealth, and medicine to its tributary countries. It is also a frothing nightmare of eugenicist policy. The shadowy leaders of the Masquerade seek to use selective breeding, brainwashing, sterilization, and genital mutilation in order to achieve total control over their citizenry. And you learn about this in extremely unpleasant detail.
In the middle of this, our titular heroine is both a lesbian and racially Other. She seeks to achieve power within the Masquerade in order to free her homeland of Taranoke, which is being steadily paved over by the Masquerade’s imperialist regime. In order to achieve any significance at all, she must overcome the artificial barriers placed in front of her due to her gender and origin, while remorselessly hiding her sexuality. Watching her walk this particular tightrope is, in a word, fraught.
Here’s another reading: oh, fuck that was brilliant. Dickinson’s worldbuilding is on a par with that of George R. R. Martin. The nations of his world are fully-realized entities that feel more real than some countries I’ve visited. More to the point is the author’s understanding of economics. Relatively boring topics — the price of timber, the value of paper money, the gold standard — are given frightening weight. In this world, an economic collapse means that people spend the winter freezing, fighting scurvy, and burying their children.
This is a facet of the book’s overarching theme. People do terrible things in this book — to each other, to themselves, to their enemies. They justify these things based on necessity, based on love, or simply on the horrible randomness of war. Baru does many of these terrible things herself. She is the driver of the plot, and in fact one of the most compelling characters in fiction.
Lastly: oh, fuck did I love this book. Please read it. Fair warning, it is going to leave you feeling drained, and angry, and sad, but in the process you will have consumed what is certain to be remembered as a path-breaking work of literature.