the Little Red Reviewer

The Monster Baru Cormorant

Posted on: December 4, 2018

The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (The Masquerade #2)

published October 2018

where I got it:  purchased new








I do love a character focused narrative, so The Traitor Baru Cormorant was right up my alley. That novel was narrowly focused on Baru – if she didn’t know about a city or a culture or specific laws, then the reader didn’t either. Luckily, that narrative was focused on things Baru knew – her childhood home, accounting, how to manipulate currency, and the local politics of Aurdwynn. At this point in Baru’s life, we didn’t need to know anything she didn’t know.


The sequel, The Monster Baru Cormorant, starts just as the first book in the series is ending. Baru’s mission to bring down Aurdwynn was more successful than anyone could have imagined.  Maybe too successful, in fact. She was supposed to keep her lover alive. Baru was supposed to allow the Empire to keep Tain Hu has a hostage against Baru’s “good behavior”. Baru may be a product of the Farrier process, but she’s also already seen how hostages are used to encourage “good behavior”.   The Empire will never have Tain Hu.


Baru is now the only hostage-less cryptarch.  The other cryptarchs don’t know what to make of this – does this make her more powerful than they? More unpredictable and therefore less powerful?  They have nothing they can hold of Baru, and everyone knows it. You’ll notice I’m not mentioning the other Cryptarchs by name, because spoilers.


In my mind, this series has become an asymmetrical crystal chandelier of sorts.  Each aspect (Baru’s lack of hostage, nature vs nurture, the culture of the Mbo, trim, the cancrioth, how you can never go home, etc) is another facet cut into the crystal that changes how the light from the center of the chandelier falls on the room.  And depending on where you are standing, maybe you’ll see direct light, or indirect light, or only a pattern of shifting shadows. The Empire of Masks means something very different, depending on where you are standing. It follows that if you don’t like the view from where you are, that a change in perspective is all you need to see in full spectrum.


Those who stand in Falcrest believe they are the center of the world, the center of civilization. Those who stand in Lonjaro Mbo and Segu Mbo probably feel bad for the Falcresti, with their lack of trim, isolating culture, and limited currency.  It’s also interesting to me, how few Cryptarchs are Falcresti by birth, people now forced to serve an Empire that they have zero cultural connection to.

Baru may have narrowly escaped Aurdwynn, but she still has plans for that region.  The other cryptarchs are surprised she’d waste anymore time on Aurdwynn, when she now can control the entire Empire.  As the floor maps are unfurled, the scope of the story grows and grows. As Baru’s geographic knowledge grows, so does the size of the cast and the sprawl of the story.  While looking at a map, Baru’s eyes trace the outline of her homeland, Taranoke. She realizes this map, and the details of the coast, are know only known to her because of a Masquerade map maker.


As Baru learns how to play The Great Game, she realizes how and why her homeland was so easy to take, how ignorance of the larger world made her people vulnerable to the tactics of the Empire.  How many other places will she use these same tactics as a way to prove her worth to the Empire? The success of her private mission hinges on on the Empire always seeing her as valuable.


Two sprawling plots intertwine throughout The Monster Baru Cormorant – the easy one is the politics of identifying the best moment for the Imperial Navy to go to war with the Mbo (which oddly enough, mirrors the Traitor’s Qualm, in which everyone must agree on the timeframe, or the entire thing is guaranteed to fall apart), and the Cryptarch’s mission to tear the Mbo apart from the inside, allowing the Imperial Navy to show up just in time to be the savior of the surviving Mbo.


Two overarching plots, but oh my goodness, so much more going on!  Nearly all of which revolves around Nature vs. Nurture. Cairdine Farrier believes in Nurture – that no matter what someone’s natural inclinations are, they can be taught and trained to behave in a certain way to the point where the person will be believe their learned behaviors are their natural way of being. Farrier’s friend and rival, Cosgrad Torrinde, believes in Nature, primarily the concept that if you can change someone’s genetics, you can change their nature. And what if their children could inherit that change? Torrinde believes there is something to the Mbo myth of the cancrioth, something now mystical that has scientific underpinnings, something he can use to prove his theory. Two different solutions to how the Empire of Masks can take over the world. Only one method will be chosen, and it now up to Baru and two other Cryptarchs to infiltrate the Mbo to learn how to destroy their sprawling culture from within.


And then there is the gloriously complicated culture of the Mbo, a culture that welcomes foreigners and just as quickly absorbs and subsumes foreign culture while still keeping their own culture of trim strong. The Mbo Federal Princes travel the known world as ambassadors, talking about trim to anyone who will listen. It gave me a chuckle to think of the Mbo viewing the Falcresti as underdeveloped.


Confused yet?  Don’t be. The Monster Baru Cormorant is tightly and clearly plotted. So long as you pay attention to which characters are on whose side, you’ll have an easy time getting sucked into the political machinations, the budding relationships, and the larger picture.  Yes, there are chapters from multiple points of view, flash backs, Baru’s closed head injury doing strange things to her perceptions and vision, and naval officers who change sides at the drop of a hat, but everything is clear on the page. I think it is the sprawling large world plot and growing cast that has caused people to compare this series to Martin’s Game of Thrones.  No disrespect to Martin, but the story of the Masquerade makes A Song of Ice and Fire look like kindergarten.


Beyond nature vs nurture, beyond my fascination with the Mbo,  The Monster Baru Cormorant deals with other ideas that are more complicated than we often give them credit for:  That you can’t touch the world without the world touching you – that you will be changed by this, and how many changes until your family no longer recognizes you? How many steps on the path of good intentions until you become a monster? How your perception changes  based on where you are standing (literally, in Baru’s case), and of course there is the spine tingling secret of the Cancrioth.


Huge ideas, battling theories, terrifying mythologies that aren’t exactly myth, cinematic action scenes,  The Monster Baru Cormorant was everything I wanted and more. I truly have no idea how Dickinson crammed so much into less than 500 pages, and made everything clear and accessible.


What kind of master’s student do I need to be so that I can write my master’s thesis on this series?   Creative writing? Political science? The politics of trade and colonization?


The bad news is that this 2nd book in the series ends on a cliffhanger.


The good news is Dickinson has not only finished writing the 3rd book in the series, but I also hear a rumor he is working on a science fiction novel.



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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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