Thursday, February 16, 2017
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson
The story follows the career of Baru Cormorant, a young girl who grows up on the island of Taranoke with her mother and two fathers. Already life in Taranoke is changing as the Empire of Masks has been invading with trade goods and their paper currency, drawing Taranoke closer into the Masquerade's economic sphere of influence. Things change for forever when imperial marines land on Taranoke and finally force a treaty of federation, making Taranoke one of many provinces of the empire. Baru gets recruited by an imperial agent and her talent with mathematics (and incredibly high civil service exam score) draw the attention of powerful patrons within the Masquerade's powerful elites. Baru is soon selected as Imperial Accountant for Aurdwynn, a province that promises to be a major income source for the empire if the traitorous and back-stabbing dukes and other local interests can be kept under control. Baru finds herself involved in an almost never-ending series of intrigues and plots, each one concealing one far more sinister beneath it. It's truly an interesting read that will keep you guessing and trying to figure out what everyone is planning and who can really be trusted.
One of the things I liked the most about this book was that we got to see the Masquerade use multiple tools of empire to create and control a large, continent spanning empire which they intend to expand indefinitely until it encompasses the entire world. They do have military power and aren't afraid to use it, that's true. But wars are expensive in money, materiel, and lives, and the Masquerade doesn't want to spend more resources than it has to. Early in the book we get to see, at least partially, how the Masquerade uses economic power to influence regions and bring them within its sphere of influence, and we really see how the Masquerade utilizes economic power when Baru becomes Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn. (It's also really neat to see fiat currency and futures contracts introduced, although I have an odd fascination with high finance so it's kind of up my alley.)
The first part of the book also shows some of the more insidious parts of Masquerade control with the construction of Charitable Services Schools to educated the poor and orphaned children of conquered provinces. The Masquerade utilizes education itself to wipe out indigenous cultures and supplant it with its own, sanitized, imperial culture and by indoctrinating children with it, they're ensuring the coming generation, and future generations, will be indoctrinated in imperial credos. And perhaps most sinisterly of all, the Masquerade has an extensive eugenics program working to breed out undesirable traits in subject populations and create more docile, more reliable, and more pliant subjects. And of course all of these are actual methods utilized by historical imperial powers to control colonies and client states in the past, so it's really interesting if somewhat sinister to see them in action in a fictional universe.
As I mentioned earlier in the review, this is a very intrigue-heavy plot. It's not really a question of if Aurdwynn will rebel, but when it will and the Masquerade is trying to head it off before it goes too far. However, the rebels are just as aware of this and have grown equally canny over the years to keep their actions clandestine. I spent a lot of book wondering what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish, Baru included, and what their ultimate goals were. And since I have absolutely no talent for subterfuge I didn't pick up on it until the very end of the book. That being said I still think it's really interesting and a very engaging storyline.
And finally, I think Baru Cormorant is an interesting character herself. She's a savant at mathematics and seems to have an almost innate grasp of economic concepts. Her biggest struggle is between remaining true to who she is, remembering her home of Taranoke, and using the skills of the Masquerade to free her home, and becoming the mask of the Imperial official and becoming one more cog in the machinery of the Masquerade's system of government. And Baru has a very believable flaw of forgetting she's not the only player in the game of intrigue and politics and doesn't always plan on people acting differently from how she'd expect. Which I think keeps her human as a character and more developed rather than less.
Overall I think this book was very good. It's an interesting look at imperialism and the levers of power within an imperialist system, and it's some really good political intrigue as well. If you're a fan of Game of Thrones or other stories like it, I think you'll definitely enjoy this too.