THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT – Seth Dickinson (2015)

The Traitor Baru CormorantFirst things first: I didn’t finish this book. I read 260 of its 399 pages, and then decided to give up. I did read the last 20 pages, to check the ending, mainly in function of this review.

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 book’s economical and monetary scheming 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 in today’s saturated market 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.


10 responses to “THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT – Seth Dickinson (2015)

  1. Wow, I believe this is the first negative review I’ve read for this. This had tons of praising reviews when it first came out, and I was expecting maybe a Hugo nominee for it or Campbell nomination for Seth. The ending was what people really seemed to love about this.

    I do like your “note to self” at the end XD

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s some negative ones on goodreads, but i’m in the minority position yeah. I think the ending was a bit out of character, but since “gut-wrenching” is on the cover not really surprising. Could have been more emotional is Dickinson had focussed more on emotions throughout the book. I think it didn’t score nominations because it’s one of those books that seems great at first, but end up forgotten after the hype wears off…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This book did indeed receive mixed reviews, and the negative ones I’ve read so far all agree with your comments on dryness and lack of emotional attachment to the main character: I did like it, but I also can see where the detachment comes from. Baru does not “speak” to readers, somehow, and seems to keep them at a distance and this can engender two kinds of reaction: those who are fascinated by this sort of impenetrable mystery, and those who are driven off.
    The beauty of sharing reviews lies exactly here, in the different ways we look at the same thing – and it’s always a fascinating experience 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure the impenetrableness of the mystery drove me away, but I fully agree on the fact that it is fascinating how different people react to the same set of data 🙂


  3. Honestly, I never enjoy novels where the characters do not come alive for me, make me empathize and feel their successes and failures, and since that seems to be the main criticism I keep hearing about this one I believe I will keep my distance from it. Great and fair review.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I personally loved this book but I can totally understand why a good number of people didn’t it. We can’t all enjoy the same books, it would be terribly boring 😛
    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. LOL I do distrust Max Gladstone big time already but this quote is just so over the top it made me laugh 😂

    After Piotrek’s review i had no intention of reading this book and your review just reinforced this conviction. I so don’t like when people focus on writing treatises instead of plot in their novels (though I very much appreciate good treatises as such 😉).

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s