The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
I finished this last week and have been mulling it over ever since.
Fantasy is often set in an imaginary world, but fantasy consistently deals with themes that have troubled mankind from the dawn of civilization. Fantasy subgenres are plentiful, and I have enjoyed many of them, but the themes are pretty consistent and magic is usually an important element.
The author may not agree, but I think The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an allegory. Not a religious allegory; Seth Dickinson will never be confused with C.S. Lewis.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an allegorical look at civilization, nationalism, politics, and conquest. Although set in a world that contains both medieval and modern elements, it mirrors so many aspects of history involving great and powerful nations--and not usually those elements that a nation can be proud of.
Conquest isn't always about marching in with enough military might to overwhelm a country. It can begin as a soft conquest through trade. Add changing the monetary basis. Then gradually add the dismantlement of a country's culture, tradition, religion, social and sexual mores, and commandeering the education of a nation's children. A reinvention. A political coup. A grand eugenic experiment.
The Empire of Masks begins its conquest of Baru Cormorant's home of Taranoke in a manner in which they are entirely proficient. The Mask begins softly with trade and a change of currency, the offer of better roads, sanitation, and medical practices, and then proceeds to demand that the population accedes to the Mask's economic, political, social, sexual, and moral attitudes. Through boarding schools, the Mask educates a new generation in their own image.
The force is not evident initially; it evolves gradually, but the velvet glove comes off when necessary in particularly brutal ways.
The Traitor is about the economics of power and the power of economics. It is about control, war strategy, and the price of rebellion.
It is also about a woman who decides the only way to fight back, to escape the control--is to gain power by insinuating herself in the highest position possible and to destroy the system from within. Just as the Mask has done to its conquered territories.
As a fantasy, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is excellent--great world-building, intriguing characters, and plenty of suspense, corruption, action, and betrayal.
But it is something more. It calls upon us to examine ourselves, our personal views of the world, and the politics of our own nations, both past and present. It takes so many of the issues faced today and turns them into fiction, but makes us contemplate contemporary problems at the same time.
The books is beautifully written and powerful. My thanks to Althea Ann, who first engaged my interest in this book.
Fantasy? 2015. Print version: 400 pages.