The Traitor (“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” in the US) is Seth Dickinson’s debut novel. It’s a complex piece, which can be viewed from several angles. It’s the tale of Baru Cormorant, an island girl taken into the service of the Mask Empire. A savant, she quickly becomes useful to them – but her goal is to bring down their system from within. There’s a strand of narrative about her personal growth, and the moral quandaries she finds both internally and externally as she strives to shatter the Imperial system. But there’s also duels, and lovingly rendered large scale battles. There’s discussions on utilitarian morality, wrapped up in Baru’s own relationships. There’s cut-throat (possibly literally) politics, and some fascinating discussion of economics. And then there’s wider themes – about choice, about the impact of colonialism, about humanity – the heights and depths which people will allow themselves, and the way both are screened by institutions.
The world Dickinson presents is one spread over geographical locales, with distinct cultures to suit. There’s the island culture which is the origin of our protagonist. It’s defined in broad strokes, a polyamorous paradise, a culture with stylised conflict and a straightforwardly bucolic lifestyle. It’s defined more closely by the contrast it makes with the Empire of the Mask.
The Mask is a growing Imperial power, it’s civil servants cloaked by masks when on duty. The sense of conformity that this induces – both in those servants, and in the reader – seems quite intentional. Dickinson does a masterclass in depersonalisation and separation – the members of the Mask that we run into are uniformly competent, and typically quite terrifying in one form or another. There’s a conflict for the reader between the inhumanity of their role and the humanity of the individuals behind the masks. This is exacerbated by a seemingly deliberate tension between political policies which allow citizens freedom – economically, and largely socially – and the brutal psychological conditioning that the Empire inflicts on those it thinks are living outside of accepted norms.
Dickinson’s done well here, creating a system which is, in many ways, beneficial to the ruled – whilst also providing enough policies guaranteed to draw horrors from the reader to induce conflict. That conflict, that narrative mirror between the reader and the increasingly torn Baru, is marvellous.
Then there’s the battleground. The Empire works on a series of fragmented duchies which cannot be ruled. The cool, green trees of this space are in contrast to the distant mechanism of the Mask, or the warmth of Baru’s homeland. An area soaked in mist and conflict, it’s the centre of much of the book. It’s to the author’s credit that these duchies begin, after a while, to feel real. It’s possible that there are too many of them – the reader doesn’t get the room to explore them all, as much as we’d like to. However, there’s enough of a sense of national solidarity to allow us to draw a feeling of character, and how the Mask is encroaching upon it.
This is one of those areas where Dickinson’s interest in colonialism, and in the issue of identity, becomes obvious. One of the others is more personally focused, being our protagonist, Baru. Torn between the Mask, which has shaped her for a task, and her homeland, she’s flung into a political battlefield, unsure of who or what she is. The Mask’s presence in the duchies mirrors this confusion. Members of the Duchies are absorbing social attitudes from their governors. At the same time, the new ruling elite exist alongside an older lineage, and are picking up distinctly new habits – as when the Mask governor goes hunting with one of the Dukes. There’s some wonderful subtext here, of absorption of cultural attitude on both sides, and of the subtle realignments that take place due to this – and it’s a joy to read.
From a character standpoint, there’s quite a lot going on. Our protagonist is Baru, one-time conquest, now a member of the Mask elite. Her character is a wonderful example of the duality seen throughout the novel – on the one hand, she’s determined to break down the regime of the Mask, to break it’s hold on her homeland, and entirely if possible. On the other, she’s determined to collaborate, to do the best that she can for the Mask, in order to climb ever higher echelons of the system that she’s now bound to. It’s a fascinating examination of the psyche of the conquered. She acknowledges the superiority of the system, in part, but is determined to overthrow it – but, paradoxically, feels there is no choice but to make it stronger. That her own social proclivities are likely to draw down the attention of the Mask’s terrifyingly named ‘hygienists’ is a fabulous means of adding personal terror and investment to an already aching sense of dread.
Baru is a complex beast. There’s a great deal here which happens out in the open, where Baru acknowledges who and what she is, to herself. But there’s a great deal more which passes in subtext, in unspoken asides in dialogue, in broken off sentences, in understandings of facial expression, which the reader is left to interpret. There’s enough in the top layer to make for a good, even a great book, but delving into the detail, into the small asides and the broken promises, builds a character which is thoroughly compelling – impossible not to read, tied up in Baru’s twists of fortune. Her compromises, her reactions to misadventure and success, her vices (several) and her virtues (visible) are a complex mix, and are what craft this character into a person.
Delightfully, the ensemble cast here is given a fair bit of room to manoeuvre. They’re all eclipsed by Baru’s coruscating brilliance, but it’s almost accidental. The duchess with whom Baru discusses economic warfare. The governor whom she reports to on arrival. The naval lieutenant who assists her with delicate problems. They have enough depth, even in a self-centred narrative, that they feel like the stars of their own books, intersecting Baru’s for a moment. She overshadows them, because this is her story, but they have the complexity, the sense of things hidden beneath the surface, to feel like starts of a story of their own.
The plot…well, this is an instance where there are multiple ways to spoil it, so I’ll contain myself. It is, however, exactly as convoluted as you might imagine. There are red herrings strewn through the narrative with great abandon. Dickinson has the skill to pull off a lengthy discussion of warfare-through-economics, several times, and make it as tense and intriguing as any stand-up duel – and there’s more than a few fight scenes here as well. As Baru wends her way through a space filled with conflicting loyalties, personal, political and national, the reader is dragged with her – through every choice and every error, through every repercussion, and every triumph. It’s perfectly pitched, perfectly paced, and wonderfully done ; Dickinson has managed to produce a pitch perfect, complex novel, with multiple levels, and some great things to say across the themes it approaches and with the characters it uses to do so. Absolutely worth the read.