The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – a fresh kind of fantasy

“A promise: This is the truth. You will know it because it hurts.”

These words, alone on a page before the story itself, with no context or explanation, are how The Traitor (my edition omits Baru’s name from the title) by Seth Dickinson starts. The first time I read them, and the second time as well, my mind hardened a little towards them. I started reading feeling a little on guard.

I often have to distance myself a little from what I’m reading when I read fiction. I don’t know whether it’s the particular authors or online magazines I happen upon, but anti-religious sentiments seem to pop up from time to time. The authors are, of course, free to write whatever they like, but as a Catholic, such themes alienate me a little from the content. The most extreme examples I’ve come across are Peter Watts’ Blindsight and Echopraxia novels (even the titles hint at some mindless devotion), which are (very well-written) science fiction novels that unfortunately strongly attack many trains of thought, but the ideas of God and organised religion especially. If you subscribe to those ideas, it’s hard to read such books without being in constant mental discomfort. Thus it is with some relief that I can say that The Traitor manages to be progressive on a lot of topics while being respectful at the same time.

Minor spoilers for The Traitor follow.

Religion in the world of The Traitor is depicted not as an invisible force nor as an iron fist ruling a naive populace. Instead, it’s shown as what it really is: a set of ideas, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world that accompany normal people through their lives, but do not dictate them. The Empire obviously opposes the devotions to Wydd, Devana and Himu, but Dickinson himself through his writing makes little commentary on it. It’s great to see this sort of neutral, hands-off approach in the prose: it lets the reader make up his or her own mind on the topic and not feel pressured to lean one way or another.

The book also presents that radical elements that identify with religions do not represent those religions as a whole. Tain Hu remarks on a mob in front of a temple: “These are very poor followers of Wydd… perhaps Himu moves them today.” We need this sort of clarity in the real world.

One of the few areas in which this neutrality is forgone is in the Empire’s choice of words: “social sin”. They use this term to refer to things like homosexuality and polygamy. This word may well purely have been chosen to make the Empire feel like more than simply a bureaucracy, but it does draw the only obvious connection between the Empire and real world religious institutions. Luckily for me, it’s easy enough to ignore this minor facet.

The concepts of homosexuality and the like are also depicted in a refreshing manner: they’re just there. Beyond the obvious exception of the Empire (and the social restrictions their rule imposes), no one makes a big deal about them, and they’re accepted as simply choices people make or things innate to them. Gender fluidity is even mentioned once. Fantasy fiction is saturated with straight-only, medieval depictions of sexuality, so it’s admirable to see these concepts worked into the novel in a clever and not over-the-top fashion. They work naturally with the setting, tie into the plot and make the whole book feel fresh and, well, modern.

As a last thematic point, gender equality is tackled gently but firmly here. Inequality between men and women exists, and it’s confronted as a matter-of-fact problem that’s real, but one that should not exist. Again, this is the sort of attitude we need to this issue in the real world.

I’ve talked about themes enough. Let’s talk about the story itself. Here is where I can really start to heap praise on Dickinson, and this is what the title of this post refers to. Baru is sent to Aurdwynn as the Imperial Accountant. Read that again: she’s an accountant. You’d think this would be a mark of a dreary tale. Economics? Yep. Monetary policy? Yep. Politics? Yep. All these things dominate the main body of the novel, but counter to intuition, they’re fantastic. The novel shines with intelligence here. Baru solves problems not with sword and shield but with pen and palimpsest. The novel puts you, the reader, above the political battlefield and illustrates the web of connections that make it up and how those connections can be manipulated. It’s a lustrous contrast to many fantasy works that have the reader in the middle of the fighting. This novel gives you a fresh perspective on conflict and its resolution.

The setting of Aurdwynn and its larger place in the world also feels cohesive and immersive. On a particular point, Dickinson has managed to name his characters in a way that doesn’t echo Tolkien (like many fantasy authors do) but also isn’t flat and unexciting. The variety of names also speaks to the characters’ different histories and heritages. I’m Polish by background, and having names include sounds characteristic to that language (and others like it) evokes hints of Europe but doesn’t break immersion. Names like Stakhieczi, with the cz sound fitting unnaturally with the letter i afterwards (to my knowledge cz never comes before an i in Polish), led to me trying for minutes at a time to pronounce them as if they were Polish words. A very original style of naming here that brings the setting to life and provides good escapism.

The dialogue and character interaction is perhaps the novel’s strongest point. Every conversation is loaded with double meanings and subtle hints that Baru works through and solves in a delightfully entertaining thought process that neither feels contrived nor makes the reader feel stupid. It’s plain fun to follow Baru as she gets into conspiracies and slowly peels them apart. Each scene is rich with little twists and turns that aren’t boring but aren’t messy either. A great balance.

Dickinson has always been good with characters, and they shine here as usual. All the plot threads are traceable back to some choice and consequence that Baru or someone else made (even if following the trail backwards requires rereading). A lot of these threads have only been made clear to me on my second reading (which comes many months after my first), and the joy of discovery is just as thrilling, if a little more mature this time around.

An aside: the ending of the book was first written as a short story, published in (major spoiler warning) Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I read this well before the book was written, and so I knew how it ended. I don’t know how not knowing would affect someone’s reading of the novel, but I know that mine was not lessened by knowing (part of) what was to come.

The writing style in The Traitor balances pace and density brilliantly. Dickinson’s writing has previously been described as “prose-poetry”, and there is an undercurrent of this in the novel. He doesn’t launch into lengthy descriptions of meaningless detail, but supplements the brisk writing with well-chosen descriptive phrases that melt into the prose. The writing pace is neither as merciless as Peter Watts nor as plodding as Patrick Rothfuss (don’t get me started on The Kingkiller Chronicle), but maintains a comfortable speed. The Traitor also contains remarkably little filler. The reader is warned of some slower paced sections because they’re titled interludes. Despite the name, you’d lose a lot by skipping them.

Somehow, The Traitor also manages to not sputter through the romance. I find most romance depictions in the books I read (maybe I’m just reading the wrong books) to be either ineffectively clinical, way too ham-fisted or just plain cringeworthy. This is perhaps the only area in which Dickinson’s descriptive powers edge a little into melodrama. It’s not noticeable if I’m immersed in the reading and reach a romance scene after already reading several others in the sitting, but going in cold highlights the intensity of the description, which can be a little immersion breaking without any buildup. However, the development of the romance and its pacing is careful and handled thoughtfully, which is something I applaud.

Overall, I highly praise The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Seth Dickinson is an inspiration to all aspiring writers, and an example of someone who’s made it into The Big Time. His novel debut is an exciting and fun read. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.

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