the traitor Baru Cormorant [book review]

“I deal in costs, not faiths.”

I read The Traitor Baru Cormoran by Seth Dickinson over my Corsican vacations, as it was saved on a Kindle conveniently available… I had this book courtesy of Tor, as one free book of the month, and I did not know what to expect. In the end, I read the book over two days as I could not let go!, and I found it a great story, despite its shaky moral stand, which makes the title sound like an understatement. And leaves me with a feeling of being swindled by the author when finishing the book!

“Without any outward sign or motion, in the wreckage of herself, she donned her armor, made it firm around her heart. Raise her mask: a cold discipline, a steel beneath her skin. Grow comfortable, she told herself. It will never come off.”

The story is a Venetian variation, in that a Republic uses trade to conquer nearby duchies and turn the local inhabitants into its own citizens. While imposing its restrictive moral rules and repressing dissent. I have read it in half a dozen books, at least, but this particular variation is nonetheless fresh, due to the novelty in the depiction of the alternative cultures and the strength and depth of most of its characters. They really come to life under the pen of Seth Dickinson and it hurts to see them go when they die, mostly unexpectedly.There is furthermore a mathematical flavour to the story in that the main character Badu Cormoran is (spoiler alert!), an accountant, elected to high functions by a common entrance exam! A less palatable connection with our field is the enforcement of experimental eugenic policies throughout the empire. The final section is a page-turner as the description of a major battle and of its consequence. Again I have read dozens of such descriptions, including the volume long battle of A Memory of Light that brought the Wheel of Time to its close, but this one is quite gripping and not the end of the story. As written above, the main reservation I have about the plot is that Badu is too nicely rendered for her deeds. She has become the mask she was planning to use to bring the Empire down. I was unaware while reading it that this book was the first in a trilogy: the author could and maybe should have stopped at the final scene, which is both the most devastating and the most brilliant part, but also from which it seems impossible to recover…

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