Having reviewed Going Postal and Making Money by Terry Pratchett for the #Money Bingo Square, I’m going to continue the theme by reading a book I paid no money for (thanks, Tor Ebook of the Month club!) that was also largely about money: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson.
Baru is young when her home, the island of Taranoke, is conquered by the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, known as the Masquerade because of the masks their government officials wear. She goes to the imperial school to train even as her mother rebels and one of her fathers is captured and presumably killed for his ‘unhygienic’ ways (sleeping with men). She makes a name for herself but is punished for a transgression (or so she thinks) by being sent after graduation to Aurdwynn, a previously conquered land where there are whispers of rebellion. But Baru realizes this is her chance to prove her loyalty to the Imperial Republic and quickly gain access to the upper echelons, where she hopes to have the influence to save her homeland. The problem is, she can’t help but sympathize with the rebels’ cause, especially when Baru holds a secret that endangers her position in the Imperial Republic–her own ‘unhygienic’ instincts.
This book is dark. I think it was a little too dark for what I wanted when I read it, but it was still a fascinating read. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors of imperialism and colonialism, especially regarding the clash of moral and cultural norms: here the ‘unhygienic’ practices, being gay or lesbian (or, presumably, bi–Baru has two fathers and one mother, who raised her all together). The book is definitely dense: there’s a lot of names and factions to remember, especially in Aurdwynn, where there are thirteen rival duchies. Baru’s preferred form of both control and rebellion is economic control: her first task is to undermine a rebellion from some of the duchies and she does so essentially by tanking the entire kingdom’s economy. It’s an interesting political move, but it perhaps might bore some used to faster-paced fantasy with lots of magic and fighting.
In many ways, not least the subject matter, the book is daring and impressive. My main problem is that it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to any of it. The narration is distancing, and I think it’s hard to fully get in Baru’s head, even though it is easy to empathize with her situation, her struggles, and her goals. I think this narration style is a deliberate choice, and it does make sense, but I think it just didn’t quite work for me at the time. (As a side note, from Baru’s interactions with everyone around her and the way she sees the world, I think she is meant to be autistic/on the spectrum, which is really intriguing.)
Despite my reservations, I recommend it–just maybe not for someone who doesn’t read a lot of fantasy. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels at some point.