the Little Red Reviewer

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Posted on: August 18, 2020

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Empire of Masks #3)

published Aug 11, 2020

Where I got it: got an eARC



Trigger warnings:  Cancer. Body horror.  Asymptomatic, highly infectious, and deadly diseases.


I’ve never put a trigger warning on a review before. But then again, I’ve never read a book like this before.  Also? This review rambles all over the place and is way, way too long. #sorrynotsorry.


I’m always wary of books that are described as “ambitious”.  It’s an unfair bias of mine, I know, but I see “ambitious”, and I think “that author bit off more than they could chew”.  Takes one to know one, my favorite hobby is biting off more than I can chew, so I get the allure, trust me.


The Tyrant Baru Cormorant?  Oh yeah, this whole series is the definition of “ambitious”, and thankfully not my definition.   So often, the tag of “ambitious” leads to me being disappointed. Not this time!  This series covers imperialism, colonialism,  extortion and blackmail, nature vs nurture,  multiple solutions to the same problem,  advanced medical procedures (and, um, weaponized diseases), so much manipulation, and the kind of enforced cultural norms that makes 1984 or Brave New World look like a saturday morning kids cartoon.  Yes, it’s ambitious to the teeth, and yes Dickinson succeeds.


I’ve not been able to shut up about Baru Cormorant for the last few years. I love what this story says about societies and cultures, how to destroy them and how to keep them safe.  I love that while the story is about Baru, she’s not the center of the story (even though she thinks she is). I love that this series is bigger than just her, it’s bigger than what she knows.  To steal from Dark, what she knows is a drop, what she doesn’t know is an ocean.


It would take me a year to explain everything that’s going on in this book, and as it’s the third in a series, this is literally a volume in which everything comes together,  alliances are redefined to expose empire-destroying secrets, entire continents are brought into world-spanning negotiations, diseases and cures are bargained for, and a truly glorious long game comes to fruition.    There is seriously about five series worth of characters, ideas, and material crammed into three books, and it works.


Sorry, I’m gonna be spoiling books one and two.  But the spoilers? Believe it or not, they don’t matter.  It’s the pure gorgeousness of the prose, the characters, the depth of all the shit that is going on, that is what’s gonna knock your socks off of this series.  Doesn’t matter if i tell you the plot spoilers, because that isn’t going to spoil the best stuff, trust me.


Alright, so a super fast sum-up, because there is too much to explain.  When the Empire of Masks came to Baru’s blissful village, they brought coin, trade, schools, vaccines, and their definition of cleanliness. A savant of sorts, Baru was chosen to attend their schools and take their exams.  When the Empire destroys her family, she vows to destroy them, from the inside out.     First step to destroying the Empire to pass their stupid test, and work her way up the ladder in their bureaucracy. Passing the test was easy.  Crashing the currency of Aurdwynn was easy.  Earning the trust of her allies? Understanding the family entanglements and regional relationships in Aurdwynn? Knowing who she can trust? Not so much.


(reading reviews, as opposed to my half-assed summaries more your thing? No problem. link to:  Review of book #1, The Traitor Baru Cormorant and review of book #2 The Monster Baru Cormorant)


Also? It’s really easy to be both naive and drunk on power when you’re like nineteen years old and have a  handler who constantly tells you how smart and how wonderful and how special you are.


In the ensuing invasion, Baru suffers a traumatic brain injury, permanently affecting her vision and perception.  There’s way more trauma to come, by the way, which we won’t talk about because spoilers.


In the second book, after “passing a test”, Baru is “gifted” with being taken back to the Imperial capital, Falcrest. As the only hostage-less cryptarch, no one quite knows what to do with her.  Yes, people had issues with the middle book, The Monster Baru Cormorant, and I understand those complaints. It’s very much a “middle book”, Baru doesn’t seem to know who she is,  she seems be pushed around more than usual,  etc.   I chose to view what she was doing as she was learning how the empire works, learning how the game of the larger world works,  trying to avoid the murderous gaze of Xate Yawa,  maybe starting to understand “the Farrier process”, and oh yeah, trying to recover from a brain injury, all at the same time.   I had a lot of sympathy for her, ok? And stop paying attention to what isn’t happening and start paying attention to what is happening. All that stuff with the Mbo Federal Princes? Pay attention, because that’s the important stuff.


Ok, all caught up?


Getting into the third book, what struck me as funny, was how small the Empire of Masks is on an actual map of the known world.   Like, they see themselves as the best, biggest, baddest,  bestest thing in the world, and the rest of the world is like “who are you again? Should I know you?”


This final book in the series has a ton of flashbacks. Not flashbacks of Baru’s youth, but flashbacks of Tau Indi’s youth, when Tau was just learning how to be a Federal Prince, alongside their best friends Kindala and Abdumasi, and what exactly happened that year that Cosgrad and Cardine spent with them. It was a year of jealousy and unspoken feelings, and Tau felt left behind when Abdu and Kindala decided what they needed to do, and didn’t discuss their decisions with Tau, who is convinced all can be solved through through the Mbo concept of trim.  Kindala and Abdu come up with their own solutions, solutions they don’t feel they can share with Tau.   (all the flashbacks make books 2 and 3 feel like one long book. I highly suggest binge reading this series so you can experience is as one long story, instead of three novels)


Meanwhile, in the now, Baru still has grand plans to destroy the empire from the inside. Her private polestar is “What would Tain Hu do?”,  and thinking about Tain Hu’s moral code keeps Baru in check, and helps her make better decisions.     Oh, and she found the Cancrioth, and the biological weapon that keeps the secret safe.

Baru is a numbers nerd, just like me.  And like me, she forgets that when she’s looking at glorified spreadsheets, those numbers are people, those numbers are livelihoods.  Those numbers determine if a parent can afford a doctor’s visit for their child, or if the whole family is going to be evicted.   She thinks she can save her people, and destroy the empire through numbers. What she forgets, is that she also needs allies.  Depending on what game you’re actually playing, success is more than just victory conditions.


I’m pretty forgiving of Baru’s strange thought processes and memory issues.  Um, hello, brain injury and severe personal trauma? You’d be fucked up too.  She’s obsessed with maps, board game pieces, victory conditions. What, does she think this is a gigantic game, or something?  And so much happens to Baru, I literally had trouble keeping track. It felt like a million wonderful and horrible things happened to her every 24 hours.


Did I mention there is a lot going on in this book?


When will  Baru start asking herself if she is nothing more than a tool of Cairdine’s? (Was she smart? Was she special? Or was he just manipulating her into doing his bidding?)  Is it possible to undo what’s been done to you?  Even if you recover, isn’t the shadow of who you once were, always there?   Baru was solid #allthefeels, to the point where I needed to step away from time to time so I could breathe and find myself again.


As much as I love Baru,  I wish for ten more books in this series that are just about Xate Yawa. Her medical and surgical knowledge, I’m both grossed out and intrigued by literally everything about Yawa.  If I’m intrigued by her, then I’m terrified by both Cosgrad and Cardine, who I view as personifications of the worst of humanity.  And they are the worst because they are so fucking persuasive, they are such good conversationalists, they are so interesting in everything that people have to say!


(Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate Stories? Yeah, I need that but for this world! )


I loved how freakin’ huge and varied this world was.  The Empire thinks they are the best thing since sliced bread, but most of the world has never heard of them, and has no use for them.  There are cultures here so old that there is no way I or Baru or Cardine could ever know even a fraction of them. I love that the culture and the history of this whole world is never-ending.


Spoilers Ahead.


Alright, so let’s talk about the Cancrioth, and what the hell movable cancer is doing in this story.  Cosgrad and Cairdine have been fighting for their entire adult lives about nature vs nurture.  Can you genetically change someone into the perfect citizen? Or can you change how the person thinks, and nurture them into the perfect citizen?  Both men have similar goals, as a world full of perfect citizens would be well, perfect and peaceful, right?  To these imperial gentlemen, victory conditions are the world.  Enter the cancrioth. Does it exist? Is it an urban myth?


It can’t possibly be a real thing, that some jungle dwelling savages can successfully move cancerous tumors from one person to another, and that they actually view it as a gift, to be carrying the tumors?  That’s disgusting! And impossible!


Are you sure it’s impossible?  If you can get past some body horror, prepare to have your mind blown.


I want to talk to every surgeon in this book, and beg to learn from them. I don’t want to become a surgeon, but the idea of knowing how to excise something out of someone’s body – where and how to cut so you do the least possible damage, but still curing them. That is what I want to talk to these folks about!  I want to talk to Xate Yawa about that too!


Hopefully I haven’t spoiled to much. Alright, let’s get to the end of this rambling, shambling review.


You know those mystery books, where all the hints were out there in the open, and you just had to actually pay attention?  But like, there was shiny, sparkly, interesting distractions, everywhere?



Thanks to some artfully placed negative space, thanks to what wasn’t said, I had a hunch of what was going to happen about five pages before it happened. And it was SO PERFECT.


As fascinated as I am with Yawa,  I kinda want Baru’s feedback on my latest financial spreadsheet at work.


If you’re looking for a truly epic, sprawling, and damn smart fantasy series that literally touches on everything, this is the series for you.


Also?  My faith in the word “ambitious” has been renewed.

5 Responses to "The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson"

I LOVED the Traitor but was very underwhelmed by the Monster, your review made me want to give this trilogy an another chance. I’m glad you loved it! 🙂


Yeah, Monster was definitely a “middle of the series” book, it was all over the place, lots of new characters introduced that didn’t seem connected to anything else, i had trouble following what was going on. Having read Tyrant, I can tell you that Monster-Tyrant is one long novel, not two. If you give the series another chance (and I hope you do!) try to read books 2 and 3 back to back, it will help all the jumbled stuff in Monster make a little more sense.

Liked by 1 person

I read Monster at the beginning of the year so it’s pretty fresh in my mind but, that’s good to know! Thank you. 😀


Ahhhh, I have the same problem when trying to explain to people what is Baru Cormorant series! It is soooo full of ideas, intricate narrative, incredibile characters and pure ambition in explaining very complex economic mechanisms in a SFF novel that it takes *ages* to introduce the book.

I loved the first one, I loved the second one too but let’s be honest: it’s two books compressed in one! At the beginning I wanted to know Baru’s fate and I was so annoyed by new characters’ back stories, in the end I wanted a separated trilogy about them. And that f***ing nightmare mad woman following Baru and punishing her…I’m still scared by her.

So? So thank you so much for your review. I was so, so, so scared that Dickinson would totally mess up with this one, carried away by his ambition. Now I am quite reassured. Sooner of later I’ll find the courage to read this one, even if I’ll be emotionally destroyed, as usual.


Thank you for commenting on my review! Yes, this trilogy is so hard to explain to people! I wish Dickinson would write more in this world, and give us more stories about the side characters.

When you get to this third book, it can be pretty overwhelming. But it is worth the time, i promise!


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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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