Seth Dickinson’s debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, introduced us to its eponymous heroine who chooses to serve the empire oppressing her homeland, hoping to work secretly from within to liberate her people. Although the first in a series, it ended with a good sense of closure, having seemingly answered a lot of the questions it asked of its heroine. The Monster Baru Cormorant and the Tyrant Baru Cormorant are the second and third books out of a projected four in the series. The two were originally planned as one book, so while Monster ends on a cliffhanger without much resolution, taken together the pair of books tell a second complete story about Baru.
One quick thing to note at the outset is that although these novels were written before Covid-19, pandemic disease was a plot point in Tyrant and even more important in these books, which feature the unexpected emergency of an originally bat-borne disease called the Kettling. This disease is much more similar to the Ebola virus than coronavirus, but the resulting quarantines, restrictions, and deaths may be either unwelcome reminders of our current situation or unusually compelling, depending on a reader’s feelings and situation. In this era where everyone is an armchair epidemiologist, I have no qualifications but nevertheless will say I wasn’t convinced by some of the details. The Kettling is very clearly described as spread through contact with blood, but everyone acts as if it is as infectious as smallpox. It’s easy to imagine people overreacting to a scary, hemorrhagic disease, but the story seems to think they’re right. However, this is just a tiny nitpick in the grand scheme of things.
So, with that out of the way, what are these books like? Whereas the action of the first book was almost entirely confined to the rebellious province of Ardwynn, these sequels see Baru traveling the known world to discover the truth about rumors of immortality, a truth which could be the weapon she needs to break the power of Falcrest. They feel like sequels in the Hollywood tradition, one-upping the first book with more: more characters, more places, bigger action set pieces, and even more plot twists. This sort of expansion necessarily results in a narrative that’s not quite as tight or focused, but unlike most Hollywood sequels, Monster and Tyrant successfully build upon the strengths of Traitor while also addressing its biggest failing.
The most distinctive of those strengths, and what helped Traitor to make a splash in a crowded fantasy genre, was its emphasis on economics. Baru’s first job is a posting as Imperial Accountant in a rebellious province, and though the plot involved intrigue and battles, throughout the story Dickinson kept economic and social forces in the foreground. Baru isn’t an accountant anymore in Monster and Tyrant, but each book has at least one extended sequence that might be termed an economics action scene. Early in Monster, for example, Baru manipulates the futures market on a small island, getting what she wants and leaving a ton of financial damage in her wake. While I do really think the presence of these elements is a strength, for readers who aren’t able or willing to follow Baru through the details of her economic manipulations, the rest of the story is a swashbuckling adventure story that’s considerably more colorful than the story in Traitor.
That brings us to another strength of Traitor that here is enhanced. Traitor’s cast featured active characters of varied gender, race, and sexual orientation. Monster and Tyrant add still more diversity and significantly increase the focus on culture, which seems to have been the focus of Dickinson’s creativity when he built this world. Falcrest and Baru’s homeland of Taranoke were established in the first novel, but we see much more of Falcrest this time, an “Imperial Republic” which styles itself a democracy but is ruled by a chaotic tug of war between a delightfully bizarre set of factions, from “cryptarchs” trying to expand the empire to a cabal of female admirals hoping to undermine Falcrest’s patriarchy. These sequels also introduce the Orati, a people who use democratic elections to choose not their rulers but the parents whose child will then rule, and the rumor of the Cancrioth, a secret conspiracy that has harnessed cancer to create a sort of immortality.
It might be good to observe at this stage that the Baru books are secondary world fantasy with a science fiction worldview. Falcrest’s agents call what they don’t understand superstition and other cultures talk of magic, but there’s a strong implication that the world can eventually be completely understood through scientific means. Dickinson even has a note in his epilogue, reminiscent of those written by science fiction authors like Peter Watts, where he says that all of the fanciful bits in his book have correspondences with something in our world. That may be true, but certainly the bounds of plausibility have been generously loosed to allow the story to go to some wild places. Because Baru and those around her spend a lot of time suffering, and Baru herself is frequently preoccupied with grim ethical questions (“is it right to liberate my people by destroying another?”), it’s almost a surprise to realize how fun the story is willing to be.
Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest defect of Traitor was that, to surprise the reader with its plot twists, it kept Baru’s plans and feelings at arm's length. We knew Baru was the smartest person in any given room, so the only suspense was in seeing what she would be willing to do to herself and others to achieve her goals. Right from the beginning of Monster, Dickinson takes a new tack and gives us full access to Baru’s thoughts and feelings. In Monster’s opening chapter, for example, another character is horrified by something Baru did at the end of Traitor, and now with access to her thoughts we see how this opinion mirrors her own profound doubts about her choices. In just a few pages we learn much more about her as a person than was possible in the entire first book. Not only that, but we get first-person reports from other characters as well, giving us other perspectives on the world: Xate Yawa, a much older provincial with surprisingly similar motivations to Baru; Aminata, a lieutenant in the Navy whose old friendship with Baru is severely tested when she learns about events in the first book; and Tau-indi, an Orati prince (who happens to be non-binary, with they/them pronouns, something the story treats as unremarkable) searching for a friend taken prisoner by Falcrest.
All this access to thoughts and feelings is important because, although the various characters’ motivations are clear, they themselves are often conflicted about how to achieve them. Dickinson’s world presents his characters with interlocking sociological, political, and philosophical puzzles that will leave attentive readers with much to think about.
For example, Baru’s core motivation is to try to achieve freedom for her people in Taranoke, and given Falcrest’s intense persecution of homosexuality and native religious practices, this is an easy goal to sympathize with. But although the story never quite turns against this motivation, Dickinson makes sure to highlight the benefits in addition to the costs of Falcrest’s rule, most notably that Falcrest’s medicine and technology really do make life better for many of their subjects.
Complicating the picture further is Kyprananoke, a colonized island from which Falcrest voluntarily withdrew when they decided it was no longer profitable for them to stay. In theory, then, Kyprananoke has gotten what Baru wants for Taranoke. Except the results are awful: an oppressive government controlled by a small elite of Falcrest-trained locals who use terror tactics to keep control over the broader population, which in turn inspires a resistance movement that uses even more ghastly tactics. Many of the leaders of the Falcrest-aligned faction are surgeons, directly associating Falcrest medicine with the tyranny that replaced the power vacuum after Falcrest withdrew. The message to Baru is clear: be careful what you wish for. There’s no way to turn back the clock and just go back to living how you did before Falcrest arrived.
But there’s a continuity between the massive and sophisticated Falcrest empire and the nasty oligarchy that formed on Kyprananoke when they left. Falcrest practices utilitarianism at the societal level, coldly calculating how to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. In their colonial viewpoint, this means seeking the greatest power over the greatest number, since surely people are better off being ruled by enlightened Falcrest than left to their own devices. These calculations are extended to their brutal implications. If a dangerous plague breaks out in a town, Falcrest’s military pursues the best outcome for the empire: that is, they seek to destroy the town and everyone in it to prevent the plague from escaping. This is the same logic that the oppressive elite on Kyprananoke uses to justify the less complicated atrocities that preserve their rule.
Falcrest’s enemies provide contrasts. The Cancrioth are utilitarians as well, but instead of an impersonal empire extending across people, they are immortal individuals who extend across time. This means their utilitarianism plays out at the personal level. Individuals gain power by giving up something else: health, freedom, even their autonomy of mind. To them, Falcrest is anathema because it is impersonal, its will expressed in the actions of thousands but located in none. Falcrest is itself a plague, one that at least some of the Cancrioth are willing to destroy civilization to eradicate. Being immortal, they can wait centuries for civilization to coalesce in new and hopefully less toxic forms.
In opposition to both is the deontology of the Oriati people, called “trim” throughout the books. Like most religions of our world, trim is concerned with right action, not consequences. More unusually, trim suggests that our personal actions directly influence the world around us. The Orati viewpoint character Tau-indi Bosoka comes to believe that a falling out with their friends has manifested in a geopolitical crisis between the Oriati and Falcrest, and that the only way to ensure a lasting peace between nations is for them to restore their friendships. In summary like this, it sounds ridiculous to our ears, but Tau-indi and their friends are very important people, so … well, it probably still sounds ridiculous, but it faintly echoes Jewish prophets who claimed, for example, that the religiosity or lack thereof of ancient kings is the reason for the success or failure of the nation.
This philosophical conflict plays out rather strangely in the story. On one hand, Falcrest’s utilitarianism is much, much more convincing than in real life because Falcrest in general and the cryptarchs like Baru in particular are implausibly successful at manipulating complex events across time and distance. In our history, the “enlightened rule” of an empire like England or France was a nightmare only in part because of the moral failings of the people at the very top of those empires. Much of the evil of colonialism was an outgrowth of corruption and incompetence across the many levels of imperial administration, removed as it was from any real accountability to the ostensible masters in the capital. Falcrest’s overcomplicated government, riven with many competing factions, is nevertheless portrayed as absurdly competent (so as to be a more intimidating antagonist for Baru). But lest this turn the story into one that seems to endorse imperialism, Falcrest’s competence in administration is counterbalanced by an unusually aggressive set of evil intentions at the top, so the outcomes end up roughly similar to our own world. But this means that, unlike in our world, within this story it’s reasonable to conclude that if the mechanism is preserved but a few better people are put in place at the top, Falcrest really might become a powerful force for good.
Then there’s trim, and its notion that personal conflicts are at the root of world-historical conflicts. Few readers will believe this intellectually, but this is an idea that’s implicit in many of our most popular stories. Hollywood has spent decades refining a formula wherein an external conflict (the rebellion against the Galactic Empire or the sinking of the Titanic) is paired with a protagonist’s internal conflict (Luke’s relationship with his father, or Rose’s cross-class romance with Jack). Baru says repeatedly she doesn’t believe in trim, and maybe Dickinson doesn’t either, but we know that his story believes in it and that we haven’t gotten all this background on Tau-indi’s friendships for them not to end up being connected to the story’s geopolitical conflict and for them both to resolve together.
I think we’re meant to see Baru’s slow move away from Falcrestian utilitarianism toward a faith in the story-logic of trim as moral growth. And while the reasoning is questionable, the result is that Baru acts less like a cold-blooded machine and more like a reasonable person, perhaps even someone we might want as a friend. However, the logic of trim (like the logic of so many stories) is ominously aristocratic. Only a tyrant can plausibly fix the world just by becoming a better person, so … well, it’s right there in the title of book three, isn’t it?
We’ll have to wait until book four to see how Dickinson wants to resolve the question of ruling or destroying Falcrest, but this isn’t the only philosophical conflict playing out in the story. Baru was recruited at an early age to serve as an agent for what might be called Falcrest’s executive branch, though Dickinson’s exuberant taste for weird models of governance means the details are quite strange. Long before the story, Falcrest got rid of its hereditary kings and theoretically has replaced them with an Emperor who is just a regular person chosen by lottery. No one knows who they are. Even the Emperor doesn’t know, as their mind has been blasted into self-unawareness by drugs. Falcrest says this means its Emperor rules on behalf of the people, not himself. In fact, it means the Emperor is completely controlled by the administrative staff. The first book in this series predates the emergence of the term “deep state” in American politics so I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but Dickinson’s “cryptarchs” are a vision of the most paranoid version of that idea: not just simple bureaucratic inertia but an active conspiracy by administrators to manipulate state resources for undemocratic ends.
Yet even within Falcrest’s secret executive branch there is an intense competition between two factions. Rather than Game of Thrones-style self-interest, these factions are aligned with philosophical ideas. Specifically, the “nature vs. nurture” debate about the origins of human behavior. One faction, led by a man codenamed Hesychast, believes “nature”—that is, genetic inheritance--is inescapable and therefore wants to practice eugenics on a civilizational scale. If this sounds bad, the reality is even worse, because Hesychast incorrectly believes in Lamarckian inheritance, so he’s convinced he can mold future children to his aims by physically and psychologically brutalizing the parents.
Baru’s sponsor, Farrier, leads the “nurture” faction and believes it is education that will create the perfect citizens. Farrier’s education includes plenty of classwork, but it’s augmented with manipulative Skinnerian rewards and punishments. Baru is both Farrier’s agent and his proof: she grew up in an “uncivilized” island full of “unhygienic” practices, such as her known attraction to other women. If she puts her prodigious natural gifts fully to work for the glory of Falcrest and doesn’t act on her personal desires, it will prove that Farrier has “civilized” her and that his methods should therefore be used on the whole world. If she is known to act against Falcrest in any way, she will cause Farrier to be discredited … but in so doing, she will also empower his opponent, the homophobic Hesychast.
As should be apparent from the description of both factions, although Falcrest’s science is capable of feats that in many ways exceed our Age of Sail empires that inspired it, Falcrest isn’t very good at science yet. This raises what is becoming the series’ central question: is Falcrest irredeemable, or will the scientific process soon disprove Hesychast’s mistaken beliefs about how traits are inherited, the harmful effects of homosexuality, and so on? This is a fascinating question that relates to how we understand our own world. Is western culture an irredeemable combination of white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism? Do we need to forsake faith in the tools of the enlightenment and liberalism and instead start something new? Or can the same scientific and cultural processes that asserted the superiority of the white race and that defined homosexuality as a mental illness produce a more accurate and more humane understanding of the world if given more time?
Together The Monster Baru Cormorant and The Tyrant Baru Cormorant look like they will serve as a two-part middle story of a trilogy, so we’ll have to wait for the fourth book to see how Dickinson plans to resolve this question. So far he’s managed to tell an exciting story of adventure and intrigue, while still exploring some really difficult and sensitive ideas, so there’s a lot of reason to hope for a satisfying payoff to Baru’s story and the many questions it poses.