Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Tor, ISBN 978-0765380722, 384pp, HC, USD$25.99/CAN$29.99. From Tor UK as The Traitor, ISBN 978-1447281146, 400pp, HC & TPB, stg£12.99. September 2015.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2016: Seth J. Dickinson is not a straight cis man, though I assumed he was when I first wrote this.
This is not a review. For this to be a proper review, I would have had to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant thoroughly, in its entirety, from cover to cover — and for the second time, my will has failed in that regard. (For the second time, I skipped ahead to the end: some part of me hoped that the end had changed in the intervening time. Alas, no.) What this is, then, is an explanation of some of my problems with The Traitor Baru Cormorant: the reasons, as it were, for my intense and visceral dislike of this novel, even as I admire its technical accomplishments.
Look. Not every book is for every reader. And some books that some people will find powerful and moving and important will leave other people cold and alienated, or pissed off, or just unmoved. (Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is a perfect example of this for me: I can see the ways in which it is assured to be an important and moving book for other people, but I bounced off it within 100 pages.) This is by way of an important preface to the visceral dislike that follows: I’m not arguing that Dickinson’s book is shit and no one should read it. I’m saying that it pissed me off in a very subjective, personal way.
Now, for the book.
Let me enumerate, first, The Traitor Baru Cormorant‘s good points. (It’s important to be fair. I am trying very hard to be fair.) On a technical level, it is really very good: Dickinson’s prose is crisp, he has a good eye for pace and character, and a knack for getting a great deal across with an economy of description. Structurally, too, this is a cunning, clever novel, with a nested series of deceptions and betrayals at its heart, crux, and climax. It’s a story about imperialism, about politics, about colonialism, and its main character is a queer woman (a queer brown woman). I so very much wanted to like it. Hell, I wanted to love it: epic fantasy with more queer women is a theme I occasionally yell upon.
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between stories about amazing queer characters doing awesome epic things, and stories in which amazing queer characters basically exist to SUFFER for BEING QUEER.
As is often the case, Foz Meadows has beaten me to the punch and written something incredibly incisive on the first two chapters of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Go. Read what she has to say. Then come back.
You’re back? Good.
Warning: this will likely degenerate into ranting. With caps. Also, spoilers.
So, the Masquerade. Dickinson’s Masked Empire, the empire ruled from Falcrest. It annoys me. I am annoyed at it. It is a Very Colonial Empire. And it’s a cop-out on actually interrogating empire and colonialism, because by any reasonable modern standard it’s Pretty Awful. I mean, eugenics, Stasi-like levels of social surveillance and control, really intense homophobic repression, willingness to take advantage of diseases introduced to colonial populations, residential schools — pick two. Or three. All five is beating the really big drum of Bad Empire Is Bad.
Then couple this with an in-universe justification for imperialism that essentially boils down to But Science And Sewers, a justification no one really challenges, making it seem as though the narrative agrees that empire might actually really be okay as long as it’s not that bad?
Hi. My name is Liz. I’m annoyed now.
I’m only going to get more annoyed.
Because in addition, this? This is a straight person’s story about a queer person. The titular Baru’s queerness basically exists in order to give her an axis upon which To Be Oppressed. There are no queer communities, after Baru is removed from her natal community in the first chapter; no portrayed community resistance to queerness as a site of social control and punishment; no connections between queer characters bar Baru and the woman who eventually becomes her lover. It’s all BAD SHIT HAPPENS and also GRAND HIGH QUEER TRAGEDY.
And speaking as someone who’s recently been growing into the realisation that she is in fact pretty queer, I’m really inclined to be pissed when I’m offered the story of an awesome queer character — and it turns out, right, it turns out that this is the ANTITHESIS of the coming-out story. This is the closet or DEATH story. Actually, both.
CLOSET AND DEATH.
So to speak.
Let’s dogleg back to the problem of empire for a moment, on the way to more yelling about the book’s queer stuff.
So, right. I’m Irish. (Bear with me, there’s a point coming.) In many ways this gives me a peculiar view of colonial empires. And of colonialism and imperialism — both beneficiary, and on the other hand, have you looked at Irish history? (And the myths we tell about Irish history, too.) And it seems to me that Dickinson is in some ways writing a message book. A book about how EMPIRE IS BAD and HOMOPHOBIA IS BAD… and not really grasping, on more than a superficial intellectual level, the ways in which people accommodate and resist at the same time and with the same tools. And that this applies as much to social repression as it does to the colonisation of identities.
Dickinson might theoretically get the idea of the “colonisation of the mind” but he misses the doubled vision that’s the eternal gift and legacy of colonial empires to their possessions and the people thereof. That’s the poisoned chalice pressed upon subaltern identities. And you know, he’s trying. He’s definitely trying. That he didn’t get this right for me doesn’t mean he didn’t get it right for someone else!
But. But. The reason this is not a review is because of the middle bit. The middle bit that I’ve twice failed to do more than skim, where Baru leads a rebellion that it turns out was actually a mousetrap, falls in love, betrays the rebellion (because layered mousetrap), tries to save her lover, fails —
I did read the conclusion. The conclusion where Baru and her lover Tain Hu are reunited, Tain Hu a prisoner and Baru walking a political knife’s edge. The conclusion where Baru condemns her lover to death so that the people who’ve been grooming Baru to become one of them (her sometime allies, her employers, the secret inner committee of the Falcrest imperial republic) cannot use either Tain Hu or the fact of Baru’s queerness as leverage against her.
These are grand high tragic scenes, naturally. With mental swearing of ultimate vengeance on the forces that compel, COMPEL I SAY, Baru to do this thing. And Tain Hu? Tain Hu helps manipulate Baru into it, as one last strike against Falcrest — with her death, fighting for Baru’s position on a political battlefield.
Fuck you. Seriously, fuck you.
When I was reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the first time, I reached the point where it becomes obvious that Baru and Tain Hu are liable to get involved. And I skipped ahead to the conclusion, because if experience has taught me one thing, it’s that you really can’t trust a mainstream book to not fuck over its queer characters. Especially queer women — and there are so few queer women protagonists in fantasy and science fiction. So damn few.
And I read the conclusion, and my reaction was you did NOT just do that.
And I went back and skimmed, to fill in the gaps. (Skimmed, because I drew the line at getting more emotionally invested than I had to be.) And Tain Hu is awesome. She’s clever and honourable and courageous and true to her word even unto death. And Baru is awesome: she’s clever and tricksy and courageous and layered like a fucking onion (and all the layers have sharp edges), caught between everything she’s already sacrificed to get this far and everything she’s going to have to sacrifice to attain her ultimate goal — which is protect the people she was taken from back in chapter two.
And my visceral reaction? My visceral reaction was to fucking cry at the sheer bloody waste of it, because here, here, you have a mainstream epic fantasy that has two epic queer female characters, and you don’t have the fucking grace to let them both walk away. No. Instead we get another iteration of Queer People Cannot Be Happy. Instead we get:
I will paint you across history in the colour of their blood.
Oh, it’s effective. It’s astonishingly well-written. In a way, that only makes it worse. If it were a badly-constructed novel, ill-written and thoughtless, I would not have formed such hopes in the beginning.
Instead it feels thoughtless in quite a different way.
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