THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson: Patreon review

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.


This review has been brought to you by the generous contributions of my Patreon supporters. As of this writing, my Patreon campaign stands USD$17 in pledges from bringing you a second review every month. If you enjoyed reading, do please consider helping keep me and my cat –

Here is a cat who wants to look at you

– in the luxury to which we’d like to become accustomed. Here’s my Patreon page!


Recently arrived review copies

Six of them! I think this is the second picture of the the Bardugo book.

Courtesy of Gollancz: Bradley Beaulieu’s TWELVE KINGS and ALiette de Bodard’s HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS. Courtesy of Angry Robot Books, Ishbelle Bee’s THE SINGULAR AND EXTRAORDINARY TALE OF MIRROR AND GOLIATH. Courtesy of DAW Books, Seanan McGuire’s A RED-ROSE CHAIN. Courtesy of Henry Holt, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.

Books in brief: HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER by David Weber

David Weber, Hell’s Foundations Quiver. Tor, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

There’s a level at which I don’t understand why I’m still reading the Safehold books. They are basically pages and pages and pages of technical detail about a) weapons, b) weapons manufacture, c) industrialisation, d) furnaces, e) cold-weather clothing and supplies for an army, and f) other logistics, interspersed with descriptions of battles, and very occasional moments of character development.

If I wanted to read about rifles and furnaces and the problems of winter warfare, I could read a history or three. But somehow there’s just enough character in each volume that I find myself wanting to know what they do next – but really, the interesting bits are less than a quarter of the content. The rest is very skimmable. I keep hoping that one of these days someone will tell Weber, “Less of the expounding on the wonders of steam power/better ways to make things go boom/ironclads, more of the dilemmas of character,” and that Weber will actually listen? But so far, there’s no sign.

But Hell’s Foundations Quiver, while largely readable in between the techsposition, did a thing that pissed me off exceedingly. The Evil Church has set up concentration camps, you see – essentially extermination camps. And Weber does a thing where he briefly focuses on a single family in one of those camps, a sort of SEE HOW AWFUL THIS IS SEE ONE OF THE GUARDS ISN’T COMPLETELY LOST TO COMPASSION OOPS HE’S GOING TO DIE thing, and then one of the main characters – to whit, Merlin – rescues that family from CERTAIN DEATH and even fixes their broken teeth and shit.

And look. This is a questionable narrative decision. Because if a character can save three people in this manner, they can save a hell of a lot more. So what the writer is doing, essentially, is absolving the reader from having to see that “suffering has no limit, and horror no frontier.”* The whole treatment of these kind of camps – concentration camps – gulags – is questionable in its failure to create that bridge of empathy, to stare into the horrors of which humanity is more than capable and refuse to let us look away, refuse to let decline to understand just how human a horror it is. It’s a narrative flinch, a failure of moral courage. And if a writer is not willing or able to force their readers to inhabit that horror as nearly as possible, to confront it in all its human anguish? Then they have no business including such camps in their narrative at all.

And Weber fails on this point. He flinches. He flattens. And it pisses me off no end.

*cf. Charlotte Delbo, “Vous qui savez,” in Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Paris 1965.

Recently arrived review copies

Four!

Four!

Courtesy of Macmillan UK, Zen Cho’s excellent debut SORCERER TO THE CROWN. Courtesy of Night Shade Books, Loren Rhoad’s DANGEROUS TYPE. Courtesy of Henry Holt Books, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Howard Andrew Jones’ PATHFINDER TALES: BEYOND THE POOL OF STARS.

Recently arrived review copies

Five of them!

Five of them!

I’ve been away. I come home after six days to find a stack of review copies waiting for me. No pressure, like?

Courtesy of Tor Books, Max Gladstone’s LAST FIRST SNOW, and ARCs of David Weber’s HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER and Gene Wolfe’s A BORROWED MAN. And courtesy of Titan Books, George Mann’s THE AFFINITY BRIDGE and Bennet R. Coles’ VIRTUES OF WAR.

Recently arrived review copies

Two here.

Two here.

From Skyhorse, Melissa E. Hurst’s THE EDGE OF FOREVER, and from Tor, Ilana C. Myer’s LAST SONG BEFORE NIGHT.

One here.

One here.

From Tor, the final book in Jaime Lee Moyer’s debut series, AGAINST A BRIGHTENING SKY.

And three here.

And three here.

And from Titan, Abbie Bernstein’s THE ART OF MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Rhonda Mason’s THE EMPRESS GAME, and Robert Brockway’s THE UNNOTICEABLES.

C.T. Adams’ THE EXILE (Patreon Review)

The Exile by C.T. Adams Tor US, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

C.T. Adams is one-half of prolific urban-fantasy duo C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, who have also written in tandem as Cat Adams. The Exile is, apparently, C.T. Adams’ first solo novel, and an oddball of a novel it is: it opens looking like a fairly straight variant of urban fantasy, and gradually takes on more of the shape of a portal fantasy. The world on the other side of the portal is called “Faerie,” and — let’s be honest — it’s a spot on the bland and generic side.

Brianna Hai is a moderately successful shopowner in a North American city. She sells curios, magical and otherwise, with the assistance of her employee and friend David. She’s also the daughter of King Leu of Faerie and his late human lover. Brianna’s mother was exiled from Faerie for sealing the veil between the human and fae worlds so that the natives of Faerie can only cross with the help of a human. Brianna has no intentions of returning to her father’s court, where most of her siblings and half the court nobility would be happy to see her dead. But unbeknownst to her, there are forces mobilising in Faerie and the human world against her father, and King Leu has received a prophecy concerning his impending death. When enemies from Faerie raid Brianna’s apartment, she — accompanied by her friend and protector Pug, a gargoyle; David; and David’s cop brother Nick, who has only just learned of the existence of magic — pursues them back to her father’s realm, and ends up right in the middle of a court full of traitors and people who see her human friends as potential toys.

And in conclusion, all hell breaks loose and Faerie goes to war. The Exile is, it seems, only the first novel of a series.

If you don’t mind a certain amount of narrative carelessness, a multiplicity of point-of-view characters to a degree more usually seen in 700-page epic fantasies than in 320-page not-quite-urban-fantasies, and a jarring spot of racism/narrative validation of police violence, The Exile is an undemandingly readable piece of fiction. But should we settle for “undemandingly readable”? I cannot muster more enthusiasm: while the characterisation does succeed in reaching beyond mere bland types, the ways in which the narrative fails to take advantage of its potential undermines my enjoyment to no small extent. The reader has no sense of the conflict and the stakes for which the factions in Faerie are competing until too late — and how closely this conflict will affect Brianna likewise remains opaque until very late. And how this Faerie-driven conflict fits in with the potential threats to Brianna in the human world is hinted at, but never made clear. Nick comes into contact with her because his bosses suspect her of being the mastermind of some unspecified criminal enterprise, but this plot thread is dropped, only to be dragged back up again at the close of play, when Brianna’s position has undergone sufficient change of state that one imagines criminal charges will be the least of her worries.

As for Nick himself… well, what is the point of Nick? He’s one of the (many) point-of-view characters, and seems to be being set up as a romantic interest for Brianna. He’s the good cop who kills a black fourteen-year-old in a justified shooting,* and Exposition Man who needs all of Faerie explained to him. Nick is a combination of boring and annoying.

The more I think about The Exile, it strikes me, the less I like it. It can’t quite make up its mind what kind of book it wants to be — and for all its numerous point of view characters, it gives no space at all to the antagonists who become vitally important in the final 80 pages. The reader never sees who they really are or what they really want, and in consequence they’re a blank space filled up with cliché evil. They have no motivations beyond evil and ambition — none, at least, that the reader is permitted to see.

That’s a pity, because I wanted to be able to recommend this book. But I can’t.

*In a gratuitous section of the novel — what does that even add to the narrative except racism and police violence?


This review has been brought to you courtesy of my Patreon supporters.

For those interested in accounting and full disclosure, what follows is a summary of Patreon support and income to date.

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Books arrived!

"This is my chair, human. I don't care what you put on it."

“This is my chair, human. I don’t care what you put on it.”

Courtesy of the magnificent folks at Tor.com, more books for me to talk about in my column have arrived. That’s Melinda Snodgrass’s EDGE OF RUIN and EDGE OF REASON, Mary Robinette Kowal’s VALOUR AND VANITY and OF NOBLE FAMILY, Alex Bledsoe’s LONG BLACK CURL, and Fran Wilde’s excellent UPDRAFT.

You might notice that the picture also contains a smiling villain. The cat insists the chair is his. I had to work around him.

Recently arrived review copies

Four here

Four here

That’s Liu Cixin’s THE DARK FOREST, trans. Joel Martinsen; Seth Dickinson’s THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT; Melinda Snodgrass’s EDGE OF REASON; and Greg van Eekhout’s DRAGON COAST, all courtesy of Tor Books in one way or another –

And four here.

And four here.

– and P.N. Elrod’s THE HANGED MAN, Cathy Clamp’s FORBIDDEN, N.K. Jemisin’s THE FIFTH SEASON and Kit Reed’s WHERE, courtesy of Tor Books and Orbit Books.

Recently arrived review copies

One here.

One here.

Courtesy of Tor Books, Tim Pratt, PATHFINDER: LIAR’S ISLAND.

And eight here.

And eight here.

And courtesy of Gollancz, Peter Higgins’ WOLFHOUND CENTURY, RADIANT STATE, and TRUTH AND FEAR. Followed by Patricia McKillip’s THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD, Adam Roberts’ BETE, Jack Vance’s NIGHT LAMP, Harry Harrison’s BILL THE GALACTIC HERO, and John Hornor Jacobs’ THE INCORRUPTIBLES.

Review copies!

Five from yesterday

Five from yesterday

Three from today

Three from today

So the nice folks at Tor are determined to convert me to Mr. and Mrs. Darcy FIGHT CRIME: that’s Carrie Bebris’s Pride and Prescience, Suspense and Sensibility, North by Northanger, The Intrigue at Highbury, The Matters at Mansfield, and The Deception at Lyme.

Courtesy of Gollancz, we have Al Robertson’s CRASHING HEAVEN, and courtesy of Night Shade Books, Ellen Datlow’s anthology of THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR.

Books. Lots. Eeep.

BOOOOOOOOKS

So many pretty books.

So many pretty books.

So many books! AND OH GOD KATE ELLIOTT’S COURT OF FIVES MY HEART MY HEART BE STILL MY HEART!

Ahem. Courtesy of Gollancz, Gavin Smith’s THE AGE OF SCORPIO and A QUANTUM MYTHOLOGY, and Alastair Reynolds’ POSEIDON’S WAKE. Courtesy of Talos, Eli K. P. William’s CASH CRASH JUBILEE. Courtesy of Tor Books, Will Elliott’s SHADOW, Ellen Datlow’s THE DOLL COLLECTION, and V.E. Schwab’s A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC. And courtesy of Little, Brown and Company, Kate Elliott’s COURT OF FIVES.

I, er, may have read most of that last already. IT IS AMAZING.