I want to begin by saying, flat out, that The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a wonderful book. This is true for many reasons: it's beautifully written, first of all, without ever feeling overwrought. The plot is knotty and snares you into caring, even when you try to maintain a level of emotional detachment in order to protect yourself from the fallout that the book promises you on its very first page. (“This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.”) The gut punch it duly delivers at the end was truly painful, even though I knew to anticipate something awful. It is also a book about empire (and about colonialism, too), and a book about queerness. These are topics that others have written about extensively and with far more authority than I might, but, in my opinion, the book makes an earnest effort to address both with complexity and grace.
At the book's heart is Baru Cormorant herself, who gives up everything she loves in order to try to save it. Everything we learn about Baru's world is filtered, in one way or another, through her, what she knows, and what she is and isn't able to learn. Baru comes from the island country of Taranoke, raised by her mother Pinion and her fathers Salm and Solit, and she watches the sinister Empire of Masks colonize it—slowly at first, and from far away, but then, all of a sudden, from right in the middle. She is taken in by an Empire merchant (who later turns out to be much more than that), who recruits her for the Empire's elite school. At first, the young Baru simply wants to find a way to leverage her new position to make her parents' lives happier, in a general sense, than they were before the Masquerade came. But when her father Salm disappears in a battle, Baru's mission is immediately honed into something much sharper and deadlier: she wants to wrest Taranoke from under the Masquerade's rule in order to avenge her father, and all of the other people suffering from the Masquerade's tyrannical, homophobic policies. This mission becomes one of her two great secrets, the other being that Baru herself would also suffer punishment under these policies. These secrets drive Baru out of Taranoke and into Aurdwynn, a large, stitched-together country of fighting duchies. At first, Baru only wants to find a way to leave Aurdwynn to get to Falcrest, the capital of the Masquerade and the seat of their power, but she becomes embroiled in Aurdwynn's own complexities.
The only thing that seems clear at all through all of this is Baru; she can't trust anybody, even if she begins to love them, and we can only know as much as she knows. However, there is one secret that she knows and we don't—something that comes out in the aforementioned gut punch at the end of the book—so we're not only left reeling from empathy for Baru, but with a sense that, for some reason, she betrayed us, too. It's lovely in a terrible sort of way.
But. Even though I came out of the book loving it, there was something particular about it that nagged at me, which was very much to do with Baru's particular perspective.
At the beginning of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, there is a map of Aurdwynn, the land where most of the book takes place. It's split up into its various duchies and marks a few cities and land features, but it also has comments next to most of these. Like so: “Duchy Vultjag: Duchess of Comets. -Nice scenery -Utterly unimportant.” (Ah, how untrue this turns out to be.) We never see the map being annotated in the book, but it becomes clear that Baru Cormorant herself was the one who did it, at some point, and that these are her impressions of these places. Because of how plain the map is, these spare comments are all we learn about the places from it, other than their general geographic locations. As I was reading, I kept flipping back to the map in hopes that it would help me fill out the world. But all the map had to give me was Baru's commentary from a very specific point in time, when she knew very little about a place she is trying to manipulate and control. This was my greatest frustration with the book: the world we're entering here is wonderfully complicated, and full of so many people who, I have been convinced, have particular perspectives on it, as well as deep and compelling inner lives; but when we experience them and their homes, it's from Baru's perspective, which is limited in a very particular way, by her own biases and flaws. This would be true for any character's perspective, of course, but, because of who Baru happens to be, in this particular case an awful lot gets left out that I would really have liked to know.
That the information we get is almost entirely filtered through Baru is not otherwise a bad thing, however. It is, after all, Baru's book: we see its episodes as she sees them, and although we may be able to predict things she doesn't (though I did not—Baru is much savvier than I am), the point isn't really to maneuver through Aurdwynn along with Baru, but to understand how she does it, why, and what that means to her. In this way we get to know Baru very, very well, even though she is still able to hide things from us. But, partially as a result, Aurdwynn, where so much of the action takes place, often reads as a second thought, not just to Baru (because it's a means to an end), but to the book in general. We are only really aware of what Baru thinks she needs to know.
Baru's idea of what she thinks she needs to know often depends on how expedient it is, or how useful. And yet, we know her curiosity exists from the very beginning of the book, when we're told that “she learned to count by tallying the ships and the seabirds that circled them,” and then, a page later, that “[she] loved her mother and fathers dearly, but she loved to know things just a small measure more” (pp. 15-16). So Baru is not entirely pragmatic, a fact that the book spins out and brings up just when you've forgotten about it (and when Baru thinks she has, too). Baru loves learning; she loves her family and her homeland; she loves Tain Hu. She comes to care deeply, too, about Murie Lo, her assistant, and some of the other dukes (particularly Duke Unuxekome, the soulful sea pirate, and the brilliant Duke Lyxaxu). She has strong emotional reactions that she has to wrestle down in order to suppress them. But, for all of this, and in part because of it, she is still guided by what is useful to her. Her curiosity is harnessed towards the goal of freeing Taranoke, of redeeming father Salm:
She mastered figures and proofs, demographics and statistics. Struggled with literature and history, geography, and Aphalone, all of which should have been interesting but in practice bored her. All these fallen empires: the husk of ancient Tu Maia glory in the west, their blood and letters scattered everywhere, and the Stakhieczi masons now dwindled away into the north, maybe someday to return. They were yesteryear's methods, the losers of history. Falcrest had surpassed them. (p. 39)
These little snippets, Baru's fragmented and often dismissive perceptions of the world around her, are what we get to piece together her world. Sometimes this is chilling, once you realize what's happening: never is Falcrest, the seat of power, described in regard to anything but its policies or the opportunities it provides; never do we find out about any particular land features or buildings. We have a name and the idea of power, but no way even to begin making a map. Even as Baru is taken under the Masquerade's wing, and even as she tries to learn about their machinations from the inside, she is still distant from them. This may be part of why Cairdine Farrier sends Baru to Aurdwynn instead of Falcrest itself. How can Baru possibly gain the upper hand over a place she doesn't know? (Aurdwynn is particularly difficult to know; this is part of why it “cannot be ruled” [p. 50].)
But in a book that's so much about empire, and about a ruling culture imposing its writ upon others, in the process erasing and modifying geography and concepts that existed already, it seems odd that Baru, who is driven by a hatred of the Masquerade, would be complicit in the same thing. Of course, she is allying herself with the Masquerade in order to take them down from the inside, so she is complicit in the Masquerade's actions. That is Baru's choice, and that is where much of the depth and sorrow of the book comes from. But the book itself comes close to being complicit, too, and that is where my discomfort lies. There are just enough details in The Traitor Baru Cormorant to get a sense that there is a larger, richer world in which the story exists. About a quarter into the book, for example, we get two lines about the makeup of an Aurdwynn road: “They went north across cream limestone blocked over beds of shattered pot and concrete, over gravel and lime and pounded Aurdwynn earth There might come a day, Baru thought, when the Empire's roads were made of Taranoki tufa” (p. 102). This manages to tell us something particular that Baru remembers about Taranoke, the onward march of the Masquerade, and what Aurdwynn is like, all at once. But it is a detail that leaves me wanting more. How did the Masquerade make these roads—under what particular circumstances? Who was displaced? Whose pots were those, and who put down the concrete? It's the book that makes me want to know these things, but, on the other hand, I am never led further into knowing. We only get to know the lords of the duchies, not the commoners who presumably made the roads, and not the soldiers who make up Baru's army.
Another instance of this comes a bit later, on pages 187-188, when Baru is taken into the slums of Treatymont. Here, we get only scant descriptions of the places she sees—maybe half a sentence to each, enough to provide a sort of haphazard sketch—and all of Baru's observations turn swiftly into internal musings about political intrigue. Everything she sees is folded into a general type or a larger phenomenon. Here, just like in the above example, there isn't quite enough specificity, or enough of a scaffolding, to fill in the answers on my own. There is also a sense that, if I invented a backstory, I wouldn't be doing justice to the real people of this world; I would be erasing them because I would have to supply so much from outside.
In Jonathan Russell Clark's recent Los Angeles Review of Books article about maps of fictional places, he quotes Peter Mendelsund as saying, “A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture—a picture of what the wedding reception will look like—but rather, it is a set of guidelines.” This seems to mean that a map has more on it—more information than we strictly need to know in order to understand our specific destination. The world such a map shows is bigger than any one person who uses it. I worry that Baru's map does not have this extra information, and nor do most of the descriptions of the people of Aurdwynn for whom she does not have use. And why this happens is something the book never really justifies.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant has a planned sequel, and when it comes out, I'll be reading it. I want more—more of everything. I hope the world, in all of its complexities, gets easier to see.
- See Amal El-Mohtar's compilation of these discussions (as well as her own review) at the following URLs: http://amalelmohtar.com/2015/09/28/the-traitor-baru-cormorant-and-queer-responses/ and http://amalelmohtar.com/2015/10/01/rocket-talk-nesting-responses-to-the-traitor-baru-cormorant/.[return]
Phoebe Salzman-Cohen is a PhD student studying fantasy and science fiction, along with Homeric Greek. She enjoys writing stories about sentient fog and magical fireworks, and plays as many RPGs, tabletop and virtual, as she has time for. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.