Baru Cormorant is only a young girl when the Empire of Masks comes to the shores of her island home. She knows nothing of conquest when their red sails appear on the horizon, but as they bring with them a new way of life, one which tears apart her family as it tears down Taranoke’s customs, quick-witted Baru soon realises the best way to overcome a conqueror who vastly outnumbers you: From the inside. To do so, however, she must forsake her home and prove herself a valuable agent of the Masquerade — starting with helping them secure their newly established foothold in Audwynn, the land that cannot be conquered.
Baru is a fascinating protagonist. She’s a woman, a person of colour, and a lesbian, born of a land where all of those qualities are accepted, indoctrinated by one where they are received with contempt to revulsion — the Masquerade subjects women who love women to ‘correction’ or outright mutilation, and considers Baru an experiment in whether Taranoki are intelligent enough to be entrusted with civic responsibility. She’s a savant, understanding the way money makes the world work and that one of the most potent ways to bring Audwynn to its knees is through its pursestrings; she reminds me somewhat, in her deft economical manipulations, of Cithrin bel Sarcour from Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series. More importantly, she’s really well-written, steely but human, afflicted by doubts and sometimes betrayed by her desires, competent in the more meaningful and realistic sense that she doesn’t avoid ever falling down, but knows how to get back up.
And, of course, she’s a traitor, in almost every meaningful sense. She’s a traitor to her homeland, choosing to adopt the Empire’s ways rather than find a Taranoki way to fight them, and her mother knows it — her mother shows it — and you can see that’s something Baru has to carry with her, along with all the other weights of secrets and broken promises. She’s a traitor to the Masquerade, someone whose true nature they would revile not only buried in their midst, but clawing her way towards their highest ranks with the dream of crumbling everything they’ve built from within. She’s a traitor to Audwynn. She’s a traitor to herself, because you can’t become as enmeshed in the system of the Masquerade as she is and not internalise some of its values, and even if she freed Taranoke tomorrow, you know she could never be wholly Taranoki again.
In the course of exploring all the depths of Baru’s treachery, The Traitor Baru Cormorant poses a lot of interesting questions about what really makes a traitor. Is it treacherous to betray the empire in which you’ve spent half of your life, which has protected you and fed you and educated you, in the name of your home? When you’re in pursuit of liberty, is it a betrayal to ruin and end the lives of those associated with your oppressors, or is it just collateral damage? What about those who aren’t even your enemies, but who can only be crushed as you climb over them towards your endgame? By the end of the novel, Baru has crossed lines that will make even the most cynical soul wince, but every step she takes along the way is so relatable. If a power greater than we could hope to fight with strength of arms swept in tomorrow to take our fathers, our faith, our right to love, our name, who can say who we would not betray to take it all back?
The Empire of Masks could easily have been a moustache-twirling stand-in for the evils of imperialism, and there’s no doubt that it does bring many evils with it, but the portrayal isn’t one-sided. Firstly, lots of good people work in its name, and alongside the more dastardly Masquerade higher-ups we do get to see a few of them, just harmless cogs in a harmful machine. And secondly, the Empire does bring enough good that you can see why people are seduced by it. They save innumerable lives by bringing with them medical advances such as vaccines and dentistry, they improve life for the peasantry with technological advances and public works, they put children in schools. If your children get to grow up because they’re vaccinated against a plague that took the lives of your siblings when you were their age, is it so terrible to call your country by a different name and say your prayers in silence? Well, history’s asked us that one many times, but it remains an understandable question for the person holding a sick child.
This is Baru’s story and she’s certainly the most fleshed out character here, but the secondary cast aren’t lacking in personality, especially the magnetic Tain Hu, a fierce Audwynn duchess who draws Baru’s eye. Everyone is imbued with enough life and nuance that the web of politics and double-crosses feels authentic, although there are a couple of occasions where coincidence serves Baru’s aims too finely.
On the whole, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an accomplished and engaging debut, and I look forward to seeing where Dickinson takes the story from here.