The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is the conclusion to Seth Dickinson’s Baru series. I absolutely adored the first of those, and the second was no slouch either; a conclusion had a lot to live up to. And, to get the tl;dr out of the way: it does. Absolutely smashes it. There’s a whole lot of stuff I loved from the first two books - life-in-crisis Baru, looking at deep moral and ethical issues through a fantasy lens, some baffling magic, and rock-solid, multi-layered characterisation. And then there’s some new cool stuff too. Spending some time in the heartland of the Empire. Baru getting asked some hard questions. Some intriguing backstory (more on that later). And, of course the sort of byzantine power plays, personal leveraging and political machinations from unexpected angles that help keep baru the savant alive. This is all the things I loved about the first two books, and you can rest assured that if you enjoyed those, this one proves to be a worthy conclusion..
Baru...oh, Baru is the heart of this book. A woman absolutely determined to do what must be done to reach her goals. Ruthless, driven, focused. After spending much of the previous book deep in depression and being dragged out of it, it’s good to see her on task. Well, I say good. Baru is definitely paying the cost for her actions, mostly by watching those costs happen to other people. There’s a moral corrosion which she’s aware of, as everyone else bears the price for her decisions, and as she weighs up whether to let them continue to do so, or walk away and pay the cost of that decision too. Part of the reason I love Baru so much is her complexity, and her internal conflicts. In other books, she might be seen as a villain, and is..absolutely responsible for some deeply sketchy stuff. But at the same time, we can see Baru as a person with a strong moral purpose, trying to do the best for her people, and for herself. Do the means justify the end? It’s a question that the narrative is asking the reader, not just about the protagonist, but about her opponents. It helps that Baru is self-aware enough to question whether she is, in other people’s lights, a monster. And the emotional heart of the book, her relationship with her old friend Amanita, and the tragedy of her love for a now-dead revolutionary, ground Baru, keep her human. If she’s sometimes odd, febrile, prone to lashing out, and too focused on the board and not the other players, still she can be empathised with, understood, seen sympathetically. Baru is complicated, as are we all - and in trying to break apart forces both personal and systemic, she’s someone we can stand alongside, even as they do terrible things.
Anyway. If you’re this deep in the series, you know Baru. Know this: you’re going to see the costs of Baru’s actions paid. You’ll see her work through her understanding of who and what she is. Of what she’s willing to do. You’ll see love and family and professionalism and respect and madness and outright hate. It’s going to get emotionally messy. But it’s Baru, whose inner life (and trauma) is richly realised here, and who comes to us as a living, breathing person. Reading this is going to hurt. It may make you laugh, it’ll probably make you cry. It may rip your heart out of your chest...possibly literally. It will, to coin a phrase, be emotional. Be warned. But its also fantastic.
The world...well, we don’t spend quite as much time at sea as previously. But we do get to see some mind bendingly imaginative, and occasionally horrifying environments. Falcrest, the city, gets a look in, the towering spires of the shining city on the hill, mixed with the cold cells, and reconditioning rooms, and icepicks to the frontal lobe. There’s also some time spent with the Mbo, drawing us back into the past, looking at the reaching hand of Falcrest, and the rise of the Cryptarchs whose later presence has put such a weight onto Baru. We can see history at work here, the underpinnings of the modern tragedy in the heroics of the past. And the Mbo, its warmth and its reliance on intrinsic social bonds, and its reaction to threats...all those things stand as a fascinating contrast to the Falcresti model of industrial society. It has its flaws as well, and the text does not flinch away from those, but lets the reader think and draw their own conclusions from the options on the table, and from the people living within the systems. Quite whether any system can be good, or just less oppressive, is something I had to think about as the story drew to a close - but I was also thinking about the clinical efficiency and ravening energy of the Falcresti, and the hospitality, the warmth, and the stratification of the Mbo. It’s a difficult world, this one, filled with unknown terrors, and even the people we see are grist for the mill. But they are also, importantly, people, with faces, lives and names, and in the end, both the world and the people in it feel important, feel real.
I won’t go into the story, but will say that it kicks off very strongly, and only improves from there. As Baru drives forward, the story carries her along, a fast-flowing river that becomes a torrent of plays, counter-plays, betrayals, revelations and revolutions. There is, basically, always something going on, and that something always grabbed my attention and kept my eyes on the page. I wanted to see how this one shook out, see what Baru could do, what she would allow herself to do, and how the various seemingly unsolvable moral and ethical dilemmas (and their rather more immediate physical counterparts - threats of warm invasion or world-ending pestilence) would turn out. This is a story with bite, which stands before you unflinching and asks you to follow it through, and to think it through as well. It made me gasp, genuinely, more than once, and swear, loudly, more than once too. This is the ending I was hoping for, once which takes the investment I made in the characters and the world, and makes it worth it.
If you’ve reached this point in the series, I can only urge you to finish it - because this is a book i was sad to finish, and a book I couldn’t stop reading. It’s a fantastic ending, and one that delivers on the promise of earlier installments - so go read it.