The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Vol. 1 of the Masquerade Series) is a MUST READ

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Francis Buck

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« on: January 08, 2019, 06:04:26 am »
So after going for a minimum of three years spent reading primarily non-fiction with maybe 5 fictional works (including TGO and TUC), specifically material that was completely new to me, I decided that needed some fixing. Around the end of summer and up to this moment, taking recommendations from various people and sources, I've read roughly 8 books, all them recent or on-going fantasy. I specifically looked out for whichever books were the most unanimously considered the best of the bunch and went after them. I was not particularly impressed with any of them, in that none seemed to really stand out from the genre enough to actually rub shoulders with the greats (and it would be disingenuous of me not to say that my own personal standards of "great" may not align with others, and if anything my standards are probably a bit too high). This changed very abruptly when, less than a week ago, I finally got around to reading "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" by Seth Dickinson.

And it totally blew me away. I immediately bought and read the sequel, "The Monster Baru Cormorant" (which did know existed until finishing the first book and seeing an excerpt for the sequel at the end).

For a generic non-spoilery synopsis, here is Amazon's description:

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In Seth Dickinson's highly-anticipated debut The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a young woman from a conquered people tries to transform an empire in this richly imagined geopolitical fantasy.

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire's civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it's on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.

But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.

This series closest comparison by far is probably stuff by K.J. Parker -- it is "hard fantasy", with virtually no apparent supernatural elements, although there's still a sprinkling of speculative-fiction ideas. I think it could fairly be called "science-fantasy". The plot is definitely heavy on the court-intrigue side of things, but make no mistake, there is some spectacular action sequences in both books.

I call this a "must read" because it's so topical, dealing heavily and deftly with themes of gender, race, and sexuality, all the way up to politics, economics, philosophy, spycraft, brainwashing, and more that I can't bring to mind.

The prose is very strong, with not in-frequent spikes of greatness and some serious quotability. The dialogue is whip-cracking superb and there's a lot of humorous touches all over, which help alleviate the sometimes extremely dark and disturbing subject material.

And the characterization is just plain superb. The titular Baru Cormorant is utterly distinct from anything I've seen in the genre, using her genius at accounting (among other talents) to win battles instead of a sword -- though there are plenty of other characters who to satisfy that craving. Baru herself is just captivating to inhabit, feeling at once like an extraordinary individual that is also fully human. Her sheer unpredictability is mesmerizing, particularly as the stakes continue climbing up, and up, and up...

But ultimately, man, these series is fucking SMART. It's smarter than you think it is, even after you've realized it.

I really can't sing this series's praises enough. It is quite easily the best new work of fantasy I'm aware of, and there are still (I believe) two more books yet to come. However I would not let its incompleteness dissuade you -- these books are at once deeply interconnected while also having strong resolutions in and of themselves. I felt totally satisfied (and totally floored) by the ending of the first book before even realizing this was a series at all.

It's also something I'd very much like to hear the reactions to from fans The Second Apocalypse, particularly on how it deals with things like gender and sexuality (although there are a number of other small similarities to TSA).

The author himself wrote a sort of essay on his goals with the series, which I would NOT suggest reading in its entirety (the author gives several "spoiler warnings" as the essay goes on), unless you don't mind any spoilers whatsoever, or if you're just interested in hearing more about the series from the guy who wrote it. The post can be found here: https://www.sethdickinson.com/2015/11/24/the-secret-design-of-the-traitor-baru-cormorant/

That being said, I did want to include one snippet from it which I think is very informative about a particular aspect of this series, and which I find an interesting juxtaposition to how other "grounded" and/or comparatively realistic fantasy series (including TSA) have handled the issue:

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For the past several years the Internet has been having a conversation about who’s allowed to be the protagonist of our stories. In some stories, the argument goes, it is ‘unrealistic’ for certain types of people to star — because they’d face too much oppression to act as an interesting character. Women in a generic medieval setting, for example, might be too confined to the roles of ‘housewife’ and ‘prostitute’. Non-white people might be seen as alien, or simply absent, erased from the demographics. Queer people never appear (since many writers don’t do enough research on the relatively recent construction of modern gender) or face brutal punishment.

These arguments don’t work out factually. They’re historically inaccurate, and moreover, historical accuracy isn’t always what we aim for.

But I wanted to say, okay, let’s say you have a world which is an absolute hellhole for those who aren’t part of the narrow power majority. You can still write a protagonist from the bottom of the power structure, stack the deck against her, and make her compelling! You have the power! You’re closing your eyes to great stories you could tell.


Wilshire

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« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2019, 01:29:27 pm »
I cant read your post because I haven't read the book, but I keep seeing it pop up various places. It seems, based on the context of its recommendation, that it is something the people here would probably be interested in reading. Its vaguely on my list, but I've got most of the year planned out as far as reading goes, so it'll be some time before I get around to it.
One of the other conditions of possibility.

TaoHorror

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« Reply #2 on: January 08, 2019, 03:08:38 pm »
You had me at "spycraft", I'll check this out, thanks! Whatever it takes to break the duggery of Malazan.
May your death be soon, slow and painful

Wilshire

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« Reply #3 on: January 08, 2019, 04:18:44 pm »
Whatever it takes to break the duggery of Malazan.
Try Staveley's Unhewn Throne too! Its like a less philosophical TSA, with more fighting and cut down into three books. That's probably a really bad description, but am enjoying  it. Complete with analogues for dunyain, People of War, nonmen , and gods (probably),
« Last Edit: January 08, 2019, 04:20:34 pm by Wilshire »
One of the other conditions of possibility.

MSJ

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« Reply #4 on: January 08, 2019, 05:05:42 pm »
Quote from:  Wilshire
Try Staveley's Unhewn Throne too! Its like a less philosophical TSA, with more fighting and cut down into three books. That's probably a really bad description, but am enjoying  it. Complete with analogues for dunyain, People of War, nonmen , and gods (probably)

Seconded.
“No. I am your end. Before your eyes I will put your seed to the knife. I will quarter your carcass and feed it to the dogs. Your bones I will grind to dust and cast to the winds. I will strike down those who speak your name or the name of your fathers, until ‘Yursalka’ becomes as meaningless as infant babble. I will blot you out, hunt down your every trace! The track of your life has come to me,

mostly.harmless

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« Reply #5 on: February 03, 2019, 03:26:30 pm »
Second both recommendations of Baru and Hewn Thrown

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