Friday, April 1, 2016

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant tells the story of Baru Cormorant, a child of an island nation which is absorbed, subsumed, oppressed, and culturally homogenized into the Masked Empire. She is trained in the colonial schools, taught the language and culture and norms and rules of the conquerors. (SJW alert: the Masked Empire is pro-vaccination but violently homophobic, and her parents' culture is pansexually open and free but doesn't have basic sanitation or medicine. Lots of subtle and not-so-subtle social conversations could happen around this book. I won't examine any of them here.)

Like many protagonists, Baru Cormorant is brilliant. And, despite the accuracy and predictive power of the novel's title, she is a reliable "narrator" (limited 3rd person). Her treachery is contained within the book, and it is comprehensive, pervasive, and exhausting. Exhaustive, too. Even warned by the title and by the giant flags dropped everywhere, the thoroughness of betrayals, reversals, and interpersonal stratagems that she executes is impressive. (Especially because, as a "savant" accountant, her real gift is supposedly with numbers; playing the people and systems around her is just the frosting atop what must be a truly Byzantine accountancy problem.) Baru Cormorant is more devious than Ender or Darrow,* in her self-determined navigation as a child within an oppressive regime of adults and their arbitrary strictures. Clever. Thorough. Analytical, defensive, and perfect in her delicate subversions. Always just balancing on the knife-edge of failure, but just just pulling through with wild success.

The story of The Traitor Baru Cormorant is compelling and deeply emotional, even with (or especially with) a main character who suppresses most emotion. (More compelling than similarly-suppressed characters like Vyr Cossant (of Iain M Banks' The Hydrogen Sonata) or Avice Benner Cho (of China Mi√©ville's Embassytown). The middle part of the story dragged a little for me, with endless chapters of military tactics and movements when I'd rather have jumped to the result. (This was compounded by reading the entire novel in airports and airplanes this week, waiting to get to the other side of the ocean.) The end landed exactly where it was forecast, but nevertheless was narratively-charged and compelling.


This post's theme word is procrustes, "a person imposing conformity without concern for individuality." The procrustian dystopia is rife with smart, subversive urchins; however, most grow up to be procrustes themselves.

*I couldn't think of a third child-protagonist-of-psychologically-controlling-regime-who-subverts-it-from-the-inside to complete this list. Or any female characters. Many are like Katniss Everdeen, and central but ultimately powerless over their own destinies.

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