Review: Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
Narrator: Christine Marshall
Published by Macmillan Audio on September 15th 2015
Length: 14 hours
THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT is an epic geopolitical fantasy about one woman's mission to tear down an empire by learning how to rule it.
Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up from the sand of her home and see red sails on the horizon.
The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They'll conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She'll swallow her hate, prove her talent, and join the Masquerade. She will learn the secrets of empire. She’ll be exactly what they need. And she'll claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.
In a final test of her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. Aurdwynn kills everyone who tries to rule it. To survive, Baru will need to untangle this land’s intricate web of treachery - and conceal her attraction to the dangerously fascinating Duchess Tain Hu.
But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.
Who doesn’t love a story that is all about scheming and revenge? Particularly when that scheming and revenge is focused not just on a single person but an entire empire. Yes, that’s right. Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of a young woman’s mission to destroy an empire. Sounds far fetched, or a bit of a pipe dream for her. But, then it turns out Baru is uniquely talented in ways that can allow her to rise through the ranks, so she can achieve both status and knowledge of what it would take to bring the empire down.
Traitor Baru Cormorant’s premise sounds highly economic and political, which immediately put me in mind of The Folding Knife by K. J. Parker. And there are certainly some similarities. Baru is ruthless in attaining what she wants, much like Basso. Granted, in her mind it is all for a greater good and therefor justified. But some of the choices she makes are just ruthless. I went in hoping I would enjoy this as much as I did The Folding Knife, but I think the lack of that dark humor that you could find in The Folding Knife kept me from loving it on quite the same level.
So perhaps it is a bit more like Dragon’s Path which features a female accountant as the main protagonist. But somehow, it wasn’t quite like that either. Actually, not much like that at all. This was much darker than Dragon’s Path and Baru immediately feels more central and more skilled than what I encountered in Dragon’s Path.
The publisher’s synopsis called her “a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals.”. Yeah, I can agree with that. Her level of skill in some ways reminded me of The Player of Games by Iain Banks. And I guess her strategy of tearing down a system from within also reminded me of Red Rising. But obviously, this was none of those. Dickinson created a story that had many familiar elements, but were meshed together in a way to make the story unique.
Now it’s unpopular opinion time. I really did enjoy Traitor Baru Cormorant, but if I am to be completely honest, I did not enjoy it as much as I expected to. I did not enjoy it quite as much as I did all the books I just compared it to. To be fair, I loved every one of the books I just mentioned. As I write this review, I am trying to determine why I didn’t love it as much. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. It could be that my experience fell victim to the hype machine. It might be that as I read I would be put in mind of books that I gave 5 stars to and never felt like this was quite there. The aspects I loved most about The Folding Knife, the dark humor and morally challenged protagonist were not present in this book, ok, actually you could argue that Baru is morally challenged, but it definitely did not have the humor that made me love The Folding Knife. The female character that I found myself quickly endeared to and empathizing with in Dragon’s Path was not present here. Baru was interesting, but she came across a bit more closed and less accessible. So while this book reminded me of some books I really loved, my experience with it just didn’t quite measure up to my experience with these other books. Parts of this book also did run a bit slow for me and I am afraid that is impacting my over all rating as well, and perhaps is the real hurdle for me in loving this book as much as I had hoped.
The book does touch on some interesting issues in terms of gender and sexuality, so for readers looking for diversity this book does provide an interesting world with varying cultures that have differing views on relationships between the genders. In one culture, homosexuality is actually the norm, where as in other parts of the world, it is viewed as “unhygienic”.
Overall, I did enjoy this one, and am definitely interested to see what the author has in store for us next. For a debut novel, this was definitely an impressive (and tragically dark) tale.
Audiobook Notes: I felt the narration by Christine Marshall was solid and well performed. However, any time I run across an audiobook where I feel parts of the novel are slow or dry, I do wonder if I might have done better with a print version. I don’t feel like the narrator was the cause of the slowness in my experience, just that I might have found it easier to focus at times if I had the print copy. I know other readers often have the opposite reaction where audiobooks help them in this scenario, so it will be up to the individual reader to consider what the best format for them might be.