the Little Red Reviewer

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Posted on: August 18, 2015

Traitor-Baru-498x750The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

publishes on Sept 15, 2015

Where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Tor!)

read an excerpt, here!









A hundred pages in, and I knew The Traitor Baru Cormorant would be a game-changer.  I can tell you right now this is my favorite book of 2015. I don’t even have the words to explain how this story affected me and what it did to me.   If you have ever taken my advice in the past to read a book, this is the time to take it again. The Traitor Baru Cormorant? Read it.


In this hard-to-believe-it’s-a debut novel, Dickinson responds to every single epic fantasy trope with “it’s more complicated than that”, and then he shows you why those complications are needed, and that every fantasy you’ve ever read leading up until right now has been sorely deficient in exploring complications. Culture, ambition, politics, conquest, morals, colonization, loyalty, rebellion, romance. Shouldn’t they be more complicated than your standard fantasy novel make them out to be? Yes, yes they should. Because they are.


It is not words that Dickinson uses to weave Baru’s story, but scalpel sharp razor blades. As Baru says, it’s not what the Empire does to you, it’s what the Empire makes you do to yourself.  No one will make you read this book, just as no one made Baru do anything. No one will make you slowly carve out your own heart and hold it still beating in your hands, looking for yourself in it’s glistening reflection, just as no one forced Baru to do the things she did (she doesn’t cut her own heart out, by the way, or at least not exactly). She made her choices, as will you. As you turn the pages, as you take Baru and her life into your own, you will do it to yourself, you will let those razors that masquerade as words cut you deep, again and again. And just like Baru, you won’t notice the pain until it’s too late.


When the Empire of Masks came to Baru’s homeland of Taranoke, she was but a child. While she was attending the shiny new school opened by the empire, her family saw what was happening around them. As Baru learned all the types of punishable sins and another definition of family, her entire culture was becoming unsanitary, illegal, and unacceptable under the eye of the empire. Everything she loved, everything that made her who she was, could not exist under the new rules.  Authoritarian? Sure. But the empire brought literacy, trade, new medicines, technology and protection from pirates. To be under the Empire of Masks was to be safe and protected, but also to assimilate completely, to keep children from ever knowing the culture of their parents.

Baru promises herself she will save her homeland from the empire. That she will take the enemy apart from the inside, that she will make their secrets hers, that she will stop at nothing.  Some of you are thinking that so far this plot sounds like your typical fantasy novel.  Get that thought right out of your head, immediately. Or, I suppose you could keep it in your head, and then you can have the surprise of your life, and that’s fine too.


Seen to be exceptionally talented with math, Baru is encouraged to take the imperial exam, and passes. Her first assignment is in a troubled nation across the ocean, as the Imperial Accountant.


Some of you are laughing right now. An epic fantasy novel where the main character is an accountant? are you freaking kidding me? But who else would understand the financial mechanics of how to topple a government? Who else would better understand how to finance a war, how to launder money, and how to know if someone else was doing the same? And because I don’t want to spoil some of the most fucking brilliant scenes in the first half of the book, I can’t even tell you all the controlled chaos Baru pulls in Aurdwynn to ensure the local political leaders realize that she knows exactly what she’s doing, and that she can pull this kind of shit anytime she pleases.  While reading a fantasy novel, you just don’t expect to laugh out loud at a scene about banks and finances, do you?


Ostensibly, Baru’s imperial mission is to keep the local dukes of Aurdwynn from rebelling against the Empire. Her job is to make everyone there love her, and by association love the Empire. And who better than she would know how much an imperial and colonizing force is “welcomed”?  But who can she trust? No matter what they say, the dukes all dream of holding the reins of power, and everyone has spies everywhere. The only thing that runs deeper than the intrigue is betrayal, and no one knows who lied to whom until it’s too late. And betrayal is the simplest of what’s going on here. The last third of The Traitor Baru Cormorant is some of the most nail-bitingly intense fiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant is not an easy book to read.  It is painful to read, it is beautiful to read. Dickinson’s prose is so poetic you feel like you’re reading some kind of mythic edda. His characters are complex and conflicted, and positively brutal in their obsessions. You know that piece of music that sends shivers up your spine every time you hear it, and hours after the song is over your  back is still tingling?  Reading this novel was a little like that.  I’d pick it up and read it again right now, but I don’t know if my nervous system could handle that kind of intensity again so soon.  The last book that affected me like this was Will McIntosh’s Defenders, a book so urgently intense that I finished the book in a near all-nighter for fear that if I went to bed the characters would be dead by the time I woke up.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant isn’t like any fantasy book you’ve ever read, because most fantasy novels aren’t truly interested in the societal complications of rebellion, or psychology, or the costs of civilization, or colonization, or blind ambition, or breaking yourself to break something larger than yourself. Your standard fantasy novels aren’t about those things. But I like that this one is.


9 Responses to "The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson"

Sounds wonderful, but”…….Are you at worldcon?


Well, you never steer me wrong! And, as I happen go have a copy – oh go on then! I’ve only skimmed this but I think I picked up all the good stuff 😀 😀


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[…] be getting this review from ‘the Little Red Reviewer’ printed on leaflets for immediate […]


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[…] a few, I am quite partial to my reviews of The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne Valente, Artificial Condition by […]


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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