It doesn’t happen a lot that I abandon a book, and surely there are much worse books that I did finish – I’m looking at you, Sandworms Of Dune. The debut of Seth Dickinson simply couldn’t hold my interest any longer, and reading it became a chore.
I had two main problems with The Traitor Baru Cormorant: I felt it tried too hard to be something it is not, and I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. There are multiple reasons for both issues.
The book is marketed as smart – written by “a lapsed student of neuroscience” – being full of political and economic intrigue. I expected more. To me, it felt rather uneventful, with the usual suspects lined up: colonialism, imperial conquest, etc. The book’s original take on these tropes is economic conquest: the Masquerade – the Evil Empire of this tale – uses economy and finance as its tools of conquest. As such, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is very much a child of its time: the 2008 financial crisis has spiked an interest in economy and the mechanisms of debt. This seems interesting at first, until you realize that behind every (real world) economic treaty there is an army. Conquest by money and trade alone simply does not exist. Especially if the Empire also wants their religious and sexual mores enforced: that needs boots on the ground – people willing to punish, imprison, torture, kill. A region that is military powerful enough would never allow foreign religious and sexual law enforcement on their soil, not even of a trusted trade partner. What the Masquerade does is prey on regions that are already weak to begin with. So I didn’t feel this book was smart or insightful in how politics and conquest happen. Not at all. The economical and monetary scheming that goes on the book is rudimentary at best. If you already understand inflation, you won’t learn a thing. That’s a problem, if one of the most important ways to get your book to stand out is economy.
The protagonist is presented as smart too. Baru Cormorant is dubbed a “savant” – that last name by the way seems to have been chosen because it sounds cool rather than out of internal necessity, none of the other characters in Baru’s homeworld are named with English words for wildlife. Anyhow, the master manipulator, the brainlord that outwits everybody, the heroic guy or girl that can learn lots of stuff in the blink of an eye is a risky type to write. It has become such a cliché that if one wants to use one, it’s better done right (I’m looking at you, Kvothe). Baru isn’t done right. She isn’t that smart. We are made to believe she is, because she does very well on her final exams. But school happens before page 20. After that, she hardly seems to be a prodigy: she is told what to do, a lot of the supposedly cunning plans she makes are proposed by others, she asks naive questions, she makes stupid mistakes, and it turns out she is mainly just a pawn in the scheming and plotting of others. She’s not the spider in the web, but just another victim. It’s the biggest flaw of the book.
Because I was never convinced she was brilliant, it was hard to feel Baru as a real character: she just remained an attempt at a character. I didn’t connect with her, and I didn’t connect with any of the other characters either. That’s because of choices the author made. As an 18-year old, Baru is sent to be one of the three top civil servants in Aurdwynn, a supposedly complex region with 12 duchees. Aside from one or two, readers simply can’t connect to any of these Dukes or Duchesses: they don’t have an interesting backstory, nor are they introduced in the story in any memorable way. They don’t or hardly have distinguishing traits, yet the map at the beginning of the book does pretend so. They merely seem to function as backdrop themselves. The same goes for most of the other characters, if not all.
Because of these interchangeable characters, the plot is hard to follow at times. It’s not that it is complex like The Book Of The New Sun is complex – intentionally – but it’s complex because the story isn’t told that well.
Another thing that bothered me about Baru is that her initial motivation (revenge for her murdered father) seems to completely disappear as her power grows. Maybe that’s for a possible next installment?
The writing was plain and rather dry, with a lot of dialogue that wasn’t particularly noteworthy, not even savant wit to entertain the readers.
There was no magic whatsoever in this book. The same goes for fantastical creatures: no gods, ghosts, dragons nor goblins. If you require your fantasy to be magical, stay away from this book. An absent sense of wonder in a novel that is marketed as “epic fantasy” is a big problem, if you ask me.
The characters lack development.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of, indeed, a traitor. The title reveals too much, as I felt the rest of the book didn’t offer a lot as compensation for a story that is spoiled from the onset. I was bored and disappointed, but lots of people seem to like this, so your mileage may vary.
Note to self: Distrust anything Max Gladstone writes. He’s quoted on the back, calling this book “a poet’s Dune“. There’s more poetry in 2 random pages of Dune than there is in the 280 pages of this book I read.