I’ve been putting off writing a review of this book (and rating it) for a month now, because I was having such a hard time trying to sum up its complexities, and what it did to me as I was reading it. Mainly, though, this is exactly the reason I love fantasy and science fiction, because it can take real-world concepts like anti-colonialism, revolutionary wars, and economic principles, and because they are at a remove, get you far more engaged emotionally in the stakes of those things than your brain wants to be (for its own protection) in the real world. It’s a way to psychologically come to terms with things that are uncomfortable, and to think about tough or thorny subjects that in a sneaky backwards way also does end up applying to real life. And the good ones do this also while telling good stories with good characters, having fun (or not) with heists or magic or spaceships or battles (and in this case, trickery, scheming, and economic warfare).
Baru Cormorant is from the small island of Taranoke, and she is only a small child as the red sails of the Masquerade arrive for the first time. They come with items for trade, paper money, and knowledge. They come to conquer with subtlety, to destroy and remake her culture in their image. But Baru is a bit of a savant, and is singled out early for Masquerade attention. They bring her into their schools, educate and train her, and early on she decides she will go along with it. She will internalize the death of one of her fathers, the plagues, the disappearance of her traditions, the criminalization of many of her ways of life, and she will play their game to win. Then she will take them down from the inside. When her training is complete, she is sent to be the nation of Aurdwynn, a rebellious place that the Masquerade has only been able to half-tame. Using the tools of her trade, economics (money and power), she is to bring Aurdwynn under the heels of the Masquerade for good. She does the work of her enemies on people just like her own, in order to climb higher in the ranks. She is torn between her instincts and her talents and goals. Will she succeed? And even if she succeeds, will she have really won?
This book kind of destroyed me. We watch from the inside as Baru’s culture is shredded: her family, her values, her identity. And it feels personal. As hard as she tries not to be, she is changed by the Masquerade, even while her underlying motive is to win at their games so she can take the system down from the inside. That choice has devastating consequences, and she has to destroy people and things she loves and respects in order to attain her goals. She’s made up entirely of conflictions, and it is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch.
This book plays you from all angles. Watching the racially and culturally diverse world Baru lives in painfully succumb to the tyranny and monoculture of the Masquearde is painful. It’s painful to witness the Masquerade (but they don’t like that name, they prefer Empire of Masks) come in and cleanse everything, using sadly familiar tactics (if you are at all knowledgeable about colonialism) like engineered plagues, the separation of children from their parents, re-education, asserting social control over things like gender roles, sexuality, and miscegenation, etc to assert and win control. The Masquerade is terrifying because it mostly conquers without violence, using other systems of power to destroy what they wish to conquer, so they can build on new foundations. They turn those they conquer against themselves. But Baru is so clever and hard-working, you half wish for her schemes to succeed, just to experience the dubious pleasure of a plan well thought out, a trick against someone otherwise unwitting.
Baru as a protagonist is a frustrating pleasure. You want her to succeed, but you also don’t, because you can see even as she’s getting what she wants, it’s destroying her, and she does terrible things in the name of her ultimate goals. The book walks a fine line there, and I think it succeeds. This book is a straight up tragedy. It makes you complicit in Baru’s actions as well, and Dickinson creates a world where it seems that no choice is a good one, and that in many ways, the fight against colonialism is a futile one. Baru is a traitor not just to the Masquerade, but to everyone she cares about, and herself.
I am in equal parts dreading and anticipating diving into the last two books of the trilogy later this year.