The Masquerade Series
by Seth Dickinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1. The Traitor Baru Cormorant / 2. The Monster Baru Cormorant
A difficult book to review, since it would be extremely easy to spoil. It's also one I would like to re-read, at least certain parts, to see if I missed major clues along the way. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is based on (actually a prequel to) a 2011 short story published online at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I have not read that story yet, and I'm not linking to it, but I trust that site's warning that it spoils major revelations for the novel. I will probably read it before going on to the second book of the series, due later this month (10/30/18), but a brief skimming seems to indicate it is very similar to the last chapter of the novel. I got this book a couple of years ago when it received several positive reviews. I've bought a lot of books the past few years to try to keep up, and to counter the negative recommendations from the Sad/Rabid contingent. However, I set it aside when it did not receive any major award nominations, and because I had so many others on my to-be-read pile. I requested an ARC for the sequel from Net Galley, and while waiting for their response I began reading. Approval came yesterday when I was almost finished.
Certain sites (fantasticfiction.com, amazon.co.uk) indicate an alternate title is simply The Traitor, with Baru Cormorant a sub-title, or not on the cover at all, but nothing on the US editions indicate that, no colon or comma, no difference in font size in the full title. The collective name for the series is the Masquerade, a colloquial term for the ruling Empire of Masks, alternately known as the Imperial Republic. Baru Cormorant was born on the island nation of Taranoke, which was annexed into the empire when she was still a child. Her mother is a huntress, one of her fathers is a blacksmith, the other father a soldier. One thing I'm not positive about is whether Cormorant is her true surname, or if that was given to her as a descriptive one. Baru is very intelligent, her main fascination being math. A cormorant is a hunting/fishing bird, and one of Baru's favorite pastimes was mentally compiling a census of the various birds of the island. One of her fathers also encouraged her to count the stars in the sky. Later in the book she gains another name, Baru Fisher, as well as being dubbed The Fairer Hand.
The empire's initial mandate was to bring advanced medical techniques, proper hygiene and diet, and educational disciplines to the subject states. Baru is enrolled in one of their Charitable Service schools, and thereafter has very little contact with her family. Another thing the empire brought was its strict code of marital and reproductive ethics, encouraging mating for specific genetic markers, and also forbidding any same-sex relationships. The punishment for both sodomites and tribadists was torture, one that usually resulted in death for the men, for women it's a simple, but invasive, surgical procedure. As with the Roman Empire, the Masquerade pressed many of its subject citizens into military service, even advancing some bright students to prominent political positions. Baru's soldier father goes missing, presumed dead, during a military campaign, and her mother is convinced he was punished for his relationship with her other husband. Baru meets people from other provinces during her studies, even begins a friendship with a woman sailor. Taranoke was not the only colony that accepted same-sex relationships, and on several occasions Baru revealed that her sexual and romantic inclinations were toward other women, even though that information could be used against her.
Baru's mathematical ability comes to the attention of Cairdine Farrier, who becomes a mentor, recommending her for schooling. At first she thinks he's just a merchant, but later learns he is much higher placed in the empire than that. Several years are glossed over with little mention, and when Baru concludes her studies on Taranoke she is about 20 years old. Her high academic standing lands her the position of Imperial Accountant in the country of Aurdwynn, to the north of Taranoke. Aurdwynn is comprised of many separate provinces, ducal estates, which historically had warred against each other for centuries. Further to the north, beyond the Wintercrest Mountains, is the Stakhi Empire, still independent of the Masquerade, although some of its former citizens live in Aurdwynn after inter-marrying with other groups. Through careful audits of accounts, Baru deduces some of the dukes and/or duchesses are planning a rebellion. Her secret plan is to foment a rebellion of her own to oust the Masquerade from Taranoke, which the empire has renamed Sousward. She plots to undermine the actions of others, while at the same time curry favor with them to get them on her side.
I have to stop with the synopsis now, just make a few general comments. The world-building is strong, with several well-developed characters, although others are limited to caricatures. Most of the names are long and hard to remember, and I gave up caring if I was pronouncing them correctly in my head. It's identified in reviews and blurbs as a fantasy, and it is in the sense it is set in a mythical land, but none of the other typical trappings are here; no magic, no dragons, no wizards or demons. Well, maybe a few of the latter, but only of the human variety. The most difficult thing about judging this book is with Baru herself. She's sympathetic in the beginning, more ruthless and unpredictable later. She was a traitor to some, including fellow revolutionaries, but possibly her greatest error was as traitor to her own ideals. Then again, I started thinking the true traitor was the author, subverting many of my suppostions late in the book. But Baru's story will continue, likely with many other surprises, maybe she'll become sympathetic again. It is possible later events will mitigate what she has already done, but based on my thoughts at this time I say Baru deserves being branded a traitor, thus I shudder to think what The Monster Baru Cormorant will do.
I received a free e-book of The Monster in exchange for an honest review, but I didn't finish it before the publication date, which was last Tuesday, October 30, 2018. I liked the first book, rating it 4 stars on Goodreads, although a more accurate score would be slightly less. If this one had started as strong as it finished I might have rated it higher than 3 stars, although there were times I thought it might be as low as 2, or that I might not finish at all. I set it aside several times, reading and reviewing two other titles in the meantime, plus not reading at all some days. When I did go back to it, it didn't hold my interest for long...until about the 75% mark on my Kindle, after which I made relatively quick progress this weekend. Most other reviews I've seen, both professional and from other readers on Goodreads and Amazon, are very positive, with many 5 star ratings. It's possible I just wasn't in the mood for it now, my reaction might be different at a later time.
My main reservations consist of: the twist at the end of the first book had me less sympathetic towards the title character; two characters I cared about were already dead; everyone is acting on their own agenda with little regard for how others will be affected. Baru claimed her goal was to destroy the Empire, but specifically to free her homeland from its influence. Yet, now that she is in a position to do something about it, she doesn't. She has not yet returned to Taranoke, hasn't seen her parents in years or even know of their fate, has even neglected reading their letters that have been forwarded to her. She obviously fears learning what they think of her actions during the Aurdwynn rebellion. Does she honestly care about them and Taranoke, or is she blinded by her power and ambition? I previously hadn't mentioned why the Empire of Masks, aka the Masquerade, was so named. All political officers wear masks while performing their duties. It seems there is not a specific person who is the Emperor, but rather that position is merely a figurehead hidden behind another mask, imperial decrees being carried out by a Parliament, which Baru joins after the rebellion is quashed.
Each member of Parliament also has a title, although I'm not sure if it's one unique to that person, or if it is handed down to the next to hold that position. Baru becomes Agonist, while her mentor, Cairdine Farrier, is Itinerant. Two others are Apparitor and Hesychast. Others were either not specified, or since they weren't prominent in the narrative (yet), I don't recall them. The wearing of masks is infrequently mentioned, so I'm not sure if we're to assume they are always worn, thus it's not important to say so all the time. Or, there are times when masks are not worn, but that would seem to defeat the purpose. Another thing mentioned then ignored a lot is the injury Baru suffered at the end of the rebellion, one which caused her to be oblivious to sights and sounds on her right side. Multiple chapters go by with no mention of how that affects her perceptions and decisions, then all of a sudden someone sneaks up on her from the right. Some people (Apparitor, Itinerant) are using Baru to promote their own agenda, others are convinced she is sincerely trying to help the downtrodden, while some think she is a threat to both the Empire and the free states. I wish I knew myself which was the truth.
In a totally fabricated world you expect the use of new words, or possibly like Gene Wolfe, archaic words for which you can't find a definition. Sometimes a common word is used in a different manner than expected. That happens quite a bit here, so why didn't he create new profanities instead of using our common ones, such as shit, fuck, and cunt? Other complaints arise from the uncorrected proof e-book I got from NetGalley. Spelling and grammatical errors are slight, but formatting errors abound, as well as stylistic choices which may have been changed for the published version. The majority of the chapters are written in third person, with a few sections in second person present tense. Others are in first person, with two different narrators, neither of which are Baru. The first time that happened I was several paragraphs into the first person account before I realized who the narrator was. Other times I'm sure there were supposed to be chapter breaks the formatting missed. One of the sections in first person would switch directly to a third person narrative in a different locale, but it's just another paragraph with no gap between the two sections. The series was going to be a trilogy, but now probably at least four books. Dickinson submitted a second book to his publishers that was almost 1100 pages, but it was decided to divide it in half. Since that second half is already written it might come out quicker than was the case between the first two books, a gap of over three years. I'm just not sure I'll be interested.
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