THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT – a review/response

There’s been a lot of talk about this book recently: both praise and critique. I was deeply affected by reading it. Affected enough to write 2500 words of review. The following is full of every possible spoiler. It is also about the seductive machinery of empire.


From the beginning this is a book about complicity; it is a book about committing great and profound injustices for the sake of some future possibility of justice; and it asks clearly whether a person who can commit such injustices can retain any claim of being righteous, correct, ethical. Orthos.

Straight. I’m making a terrible pun, in Greek. Baru is of course not straight; her queerness is not only symbolic of the world she wants to (re)create, where non-straight relationships are not only permissible but natural, but also the instrument of her entrapment within the Masquerade. If she reveals her desire to fuck women – her own words, a crudity I was not expecting from propriety-focused Imperial Accountant Baru Cormorant, but a crudity which was striking in its brutal evocation of the depth and truth of her desire – if Baru reveals this, the Masquerade will maim her, torture her, like as not kill her.

Baru has really only two secrets: that she wants to fuck women and that she wants to transform the Masquerade beyond recognition. A personal and a global sedition.

As a literary device it’s gorgeous, and I admire Dickinson immensely for the efficacy of the terrible position he’s put his protagonist in: she sacrifices the personal over and over again for the global, and in doing so, because of the nature of that personal – which is linked explicitly to the queer society she was born into and which the Masquerade has subsumed! — and that global, she destroys herself as an effective agent of the global goal she wants to achieve. She makes herself into the Masquerade. The question for the reader is whether it was worthwhile: whether by becoming straightened Baru has any chance of remaining orthos. Whether she is in fact destroyed; whether there is anything at all worth what she has done.

Whether there is anything worth the wholesale slaughter of a rebellion; of the diminishment and snuffing out of a succession of brilliant, principled men and women; of, at last, the execution of the woman Baru loves – and of course Baru Cormorant, with her accountant’s heart, creates the machine which insists on all of these atrocities, and cannot step out of them. She is caught in the fallacy of sunk costs: she has done such evils that to give up, to stop, to cease trying to become a creature of sufficient power that she can unwrite the Empire of Masks, seems worse than going on.

I grieved for her, reading. The last eighth of this book is amongst the most brutal literary experiences I have ever had: the unwinding of an inevitable spring. Even Baru’s helpless accession to desire – at last, allowing herself who she wants, taking her field general Tain Hu as her consort and into her bed – is in part designed to destroy the rebellion she has raised. Everything Baru is is eviscerated on the altar of her eventual goals. When Tain Hu – captured and used as one last test of Baru’s loyalties – is executed at Baru’s command in the final scenes of the novel, Dickinson manages to make Tain Hu’s own clear-eyed and vicious challenge to Baru to go through with it, which should be a terrible hopeless moment in and of itself, into a kind of reprieve: someone saw Baru Cormorant for what she is, and did not flinch. That this is a reprieve is in and of itself a brutality.

In this sense – the construction of a trap – I find Dickinson’s portrayal of a queer heroine effective, convincing, and compelling, because it asks a question which I find compelling as a student of an empire and as a queer woman. That question is: what do we gain by complicity? What do we – we barbaroi, we women, we queer people, we imperialized – what do we get when we say yes? When we say yes I will hide my true nature? When we say yes I will subsume myself into the beautiful machine? When we say can we speak English? Or the literature I love just happens to be written by straight white men – and mean it, too, mean it with the kind of depthless love that a person can have for a text that speaks to them, which holds up a mirror to them?

Which holds up a mask in the shape of their face?

I love this book, you see. I love this book, written by (what I assumed at the time of reading to be) a straight white man about the terrible things that an imperial society focused on eugenics and rightminded thought would do to a queer woman who by accident of talent and ambition could not help but engaging with that society on its deepest levels.

I read this book, I see a mask in the shape of my own face.

I’d like to take a moment of digression here, to make one statement of belief and two more elaborate statements of critique.

Belief first: I strongly believe that straight people can write compelling and true narratives about the queer experience. Are they more likely to make errors? Yes. Ought they listen to queer persons when we point out those errors? Very much yes. But can they write us? Yeah. Yeah, they can. And should. Everyone should. I understand that this belief of mine places me in opposition to some other queer readers; while I understand the impulse to create a charmed circle where only queer people are given authority to speak about queer subjects, I personally find the assumption that in fiction a straight person is incapable of committing an act of sufficient empathy to portray us and our worldviews well distasteful. I’d prefer to imagine that straight people can imagine our world like we can imagine theirs. I like humanity better when I make that assumption.

But then, critique: there are two points on which I think Dickinson’s portrayal of a queer protagonist has faltered, and I think both of these errors arise from the fact that he isn’t part of – as far as I know at the time of writing this review – a queer community.

Firstly, I disbelieve Baru’s awareness of her own desires. In the first portion of the book, I do not ever feel the weight of Baru’s own awareness of her sexuality; there is an absence of carnality, a kind of intellectual version of lesbian desire which is, to me, inconsistent with the sort of desire I expect. Not until the introduction of Baru’s eventual lover Tain Hu do I get a sense of Baru as a woman who loves women. Further, considering how very much the Empire of Masks and Increastic philosophy criminalizes the sin of queer desire, I wish Baru had struggled more with the nature of her desire. For the first portion of the book, her queerness felt more like a character trait assigned to her for reason of plot than a naturally built part of her as a person. This markedly improved in the second half, where Baru notices women in a way she does not notice men.

Secondly, I wonder where queer people in Falcrest are. There are always queer people, no matter how oppressive and psychologically destructive the philosophies of their society are. Dickinson does not show us any Falcresti or Masquerade queer people who are not members of the secret cabal which Baru is desperate to join. The lack of such a community – or rumors or hints of one – feels somewhat alien. On the other hand, Baru is intensely repressed, and trying very hard not to admit her desires anywhere but inside her own head, and I can bring myself to believe that she would avoid any place where she might find common ground with other people like her.

I think these two points are errors of accuracy which might have been prevented if Dickinson had consulted with queer first readers. I have substantial hope that the second error can be corrected in future books, as Baru moves into the depths of the Empire and encounters more people; and I can live with the first error if I handwave a little about Baru’s Increastic upbringing and her deep desire to hide herself – perhaps even from herself.

Some reviews and discussion of this book have focused on the fact that this story is a tragedy, and results in the death of one of its queer protagonists, and therefore it is not a useful story; that it plays into the old and pervasive idea that the only stories told about queer people are about dead queer people. I find this a valid criticism on the individual level – if this story is not something you want to subject yourself to, I profoundly respect that choice – but I object to it as a universal criticism. Baru Cormorant is to me a tragedy that asks me to interrogate my own desires to become a part of an ordered and ordering world, in hopes that such a world can be rendered beautiful. She invites me to think about my own complicity in upholding unjust structures of power for the sake of eventual righteous goals. Or, more seductively, for the sake of the beautiful machinery of empire – and this is both where I am most invested in THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT and most critical of both its ambitions and its failures.

Why am I invested? I myself am a student of empire. I’m a Byzantinist. My academic work is about empire and its seductions; it is the animating principle of my professional life. And: I am myself someone who loves order over disorder. Who looks for systems in all things. Who is comforted by structures; who is concerned deeply with propriety.

But here’s my real criticism of this book: I don’t buy the seduction of the Masquerade. And I think if this book fails, it’s there: in that its empire is too easily read as undesirable. As profane, unethical, fundamentally wrong. It is really overtly evil. It punishes sexual “deviants” with mutilation and death. It murders children callously. It inflicts plague and withholds vaccines. It lobotomizes its own emperors for the sake of convincing its populace that the emperor is just. Most of all, the Masquerade is a eugenicist empire: it is explicitly founded on not purity of bloodline but on purification of bloodline, on making people useful to it. It makes people: it breeds them carefully, it indoctrinates them through schools, it uses drugs and operant conditioning to transform their minds and make them into automata tools. It commits every atrocity that a modern Western reader recognizes as abhorrent. This is a problem. It is a problem because we are asked, as readers, to believe that there are reasons besides blackmail that a person would willingly become an agent of the Masquerade. We are asked to imagine that the Masquerade is a beautiful machine.

Dickinson tries, I will absolutely give him that credit: he knows he has to convince us. He tells us through Baru’s own noticing that the Masquerade gives literacy and prosperity and those selfsame vaccines and that when a person or place has been subsumed, it’s probably not all that bad to be a part of the Masquerade – and then he undoes it all again, by showing us that in-Masquerade people are engaged in a constant level of horrific policing of their neighbors for social sins. I cannot imagine being happy in this society. It is too awful. What it asks of the people within it is not sustainable as a society; it’s also too brutal and un-orthos for me to respond to it as something which is an entrapment and a promise.

The Masquerade isn’t civilized. It’s civilization, but I don’t recognize it as civilized, and this is a problem with a constructed empire. An empire relies on itself as the definition of civilization – I would footnote here Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch as a SFnal example of an empire which is built on this principle, and which, for this reader at least, achieves the facsimile. (But then my ancestors were not enslaved, we were exterminated; not annexed, but exiled. Perhaps I like the Radch better than the Masquerade because I can find a place for myself in it, and cannot imagine a place within the Masquerade someone like me would ever be safe –) But I disbelieve in the veracity of the Masquerade, except for one factor.

The seduction of the Masquerade is most visible when Baru first uses Purity Cartone’s trigger word to make him answer her. Purity Cartone is a Clarified – a new breed of human being created by the Masquerade via operant conditioning, drugs, and breeding, a man who is not really possessed of free will but gains pleasure and satisfaction only from obedience. When Baru has the opportunity to make use of Purity and have him answer to her command, she is overwhelmed – in ways which are at the very least psychosexual if not actually sexual – by the kind of power she has been given and with the purity – I tried to find another word – of Purity’s submission. By his genuine enjoyment of his purpose. It is for me one of the most disturbing, erotic, and effective scenes in the book. It is the closest Dickinson gets to telling us why and how Baru would find being Masquerade compelling; what about her responds to what is being offered.

At the very end of the book there is a letter in which Baru writes to her fellow members of the cabal that rules the Empire of Masks – she does win, if winning is what we call this sort of self-immolation – and in this letter she discusses the eventual goal of “total causal closure”. The concept of the elimination of the human element of choice and desire and private – personal – goals from the mechanics of the Masquerade. The collapse, utterly, of the desire of the empire and the actions of the people within it. That is the seduction the Masquerade promises; it is much nastier and darker than I expected it to be, and I wish the concept would have been introduced sooner.

I hope that there will be a sequel; I hope that there will be further discussion of what the Masquerade truly desires, and why.

I highly, highly recommend this book; I have not thought so much about something I read in a long time.

7 thoughts on “THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT – a review/response

  1. But here’s my real criticism of this book: I don’t buy the seduction of the Masquerade. And I think if this book fails, it’s there: in that its empire is too easily read as undesirable. As profane, unethical, fundamentally wrong.

    Yeah, they seem too painted as antagonists, as moustache twirling villains for Baru to strive against. Its not an ambiguous force of Empire enough to make the seduction of the Masquerade a thing.

  2. Pingback: THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT and Queer Responses | Amal El-Mohtar

  3. On the existence of other queer characters – I wondered if you, like me, ever read her secretary as being a gay man. There is ofc no explicit (or really implied) textual reason to think so – the idea is headcanon – so this is not to refute your criticism. All I’m saying is, in the bar scene, I immediately assumed he got attacked because he had tried to proposition Xate Yuwa’s spy, and wondered if you’d assumed similarly.

    Also, on the flaws in world design: I would add that another misstep of the book is for there to be a shadowy cabal that rules everything, because it diminishes the essential complexity of empire. There’s this odd thread running through the book where characters scoff at the notion that something as rowdy as a parliament could set up a flawlessly running imperial machine, when that totally happened in real life. I was also a little disappointed when it turned out Baru was not going to fight her way through Falcrest’s parliamentary politics, because that sounds like it would be an amazing book. I mean, I understand the narrative efficacy of having cryptarchs run Falcrest. But shit, it’s disappointing to see a world otherwise so rich and complex reduced in any element to the level of a realised conspiracy theory.

    • I actually didn’t read Muire Lo as gay at all — I read him as straight, or at least straight enough to be kind of in love with Baru. But I see how you could have read him that way! My vision is equally headcanon. (Oh, Muire Lo. OW.)

      And, mm. I disagree about the narrative choice of a cryptarchy, because I think it’s thematically consistent with the rest of the work that Dickinson is trying to do.

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  6. I too wondered about just how truly seductive this Empire could really be. I wonder if that might have been alleviated if we had been given some of the downfalls of Taranoke more and maybe actually seen a glimpse of Falcrest.

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