Truth hurts: Review of Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

5 min read

by Alex Khlopenko

Seth Dickinson is an honest man. Right from the start, he warns that we will know it’s true because it will hurt. And it does. Both Baru Cormorant novels are painful to read in the best sense possible – their complexity, slow-burn plot and rapid conclusions, idiosyncratic characters will frustrate you. But if Traitor was about learning if you can win when you’re playing against the gargantuan totalitarian-bureaucratic machine, then Monster is about what you do when you learn that you actually can win.

Both Traitor and Monster are shining examples of surgical precision and masterful storytelling.

It would do the books a disservice to describe the plot in any detail or try to describe the themes better than Seth Dickinson himself. The journey from the isolated childhood home of Taranoke, where Baru is hit with Masquerade’s colonization and racial/sexual doctrines, to Aurdwynne with its feudal political power games, to Elided Keep and the new sea adventures with her cryptarch frenemies, the novels dissect three major intersectional themes – queerness, classic and neo-colonialism, and origin of power.

In Traitor, Dickinson’s protagonist, a hard working accountancy prodigy, Baru Cormorant discovers if it is possible to change the system by becoming part of it, reaching the top, and changing it from within. She plays on the edge of complicity and resistance. Baru is constantly reminded by other characters and everything around her that the greatest trick that Masquerade plays is that it makes you believe that you’re resisting it, while you’re doing exactly what they need you to do. The reader is left wondering – will she subvert this narrative, will Baru deny the programming or her entire endeavor is their programming?

Traitor ends with heartbreaking treason that you knew would happen, but would do anything to not believe it. “Monster Baru Cormorant” picks up right where Dickinson left the last time and says, “well, that was a fun exercise – now to the real thing”.

In Monster, Baru challenges the notion of control, denies her programming, only to once again wonder if that was her programming all along?

In Monster, Baru challenges the notion of control, denies her programming, only to once again wonder if that was her programming all along? To deny the oppressor she must sacrifice parts of what makes Baru Baru.

Another thing that couldn’t be stressed enough is the in-depth research into the doom of queer relationships. While the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and piles of smaller books and shows handle queer characters like cannon fodder – Baru (both as a character and a story) subverts it, deconstructs it, and shows how to handle queer characters and storylines properly.

Lastly, the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views inform the narrative of Baru – her story is a Che Guevara statement:

...imperialism is a world system, the last stage of capitalism—and it must be defeated in a world confrontation. The strategic end of this struggle should be the destruction of imperialism

Unlike a contemporary exercise in anti-capitalist philosophy Black Mirror, Baru Cormorant is not trying to put a mirror to the issues of modern society. It prefers imagining how to slam that mirror and deny the power structures that control it.

A lot of books do some of the above – dystopias, sci-fi, dark fantasy, better or worse, but rarely (except maybe for Steven Erikson and the late, great Ian M. Banks) their authors are confident and courageous enough to try and give at least vague answers to that. Where Le Guin presumed Dickinson unapologetically strikes. He masterfully presents an insight into the possible solutions, not without doubting it, but not denying the possibility of change.

Traitor is the only book in my life that made accounting look cool. The limited, claustrophobic POV of the protagonist Baru Cormorant leaves you wondering if this is a Grisham-esque fast-paced legal thriller (you quickly understand that it isn’t – too realistic and well-written for Grisham). 

I was confused and baffled that Monster had multiple POVs, in different locations and different times – I was angry at the author for diluting the focused narrative of the first book. Then I laughed at myself. Just like Baru laughed more than once each time she forgot to be humble and forgot that there is more than one player in this game.

Enough of Baru. She is wonderful, but she is basically the Harry Potter of this series. The rest of the cast – from Baru’s assistant, to Tain Hu, to Xate Yawa, Dickinson does everything for the reader to care and have an opinion about every character.

What is particularly enjoyable, there is no compromising between strong and complicated female characters. None of them are stuck in stereotypes or tropes – they reject them. And this rejection doesn’t feel empty, it is not the subversion of tropes for subversion sake, its sole goal is to be true to human nature. And it is.

I had a hard time keeping up with all the new characters in Monster for the good half of the book, every single one of them was a promise of interconnection in the world of Baru Cormorant, with their influence, and tragedy. Dickinson delivered on all the promises. 

All the above would be impossible to deliver comprehensibly without Dickinson’s prose. Crisp and precise, he uses the entire toolkit of English language to nail the reader and make him listen. It never falters or wanders off into philosophical contemplations. Nothing is written for the sake of being written. The complexity of the narrative lets the plot drag sometimes, even a focused reader could lose sight of some twists and character relationships. But they ultimately serve the narrative, and I can easily forgive it for my confusion.

Traitor and Monster Baru Cormorant are a mesmerizing experiment in anti-imperialism/colonialism, that dares to do what others shy away from. What excites me the most is that a reader has to have zero information about any of the concepts mentioned above to enjoy the books – there are no prerequisites to understand the grand scheme of things or enjoy the intricacies of political intrigue. Dickinson has no interest in putting forward the intertextuality of Baru’s story. There is no need for it. More important is that the books leave you hungry to understand and explore more what you had just read about, to study it, and know more.

And it leads to my biggest beef with the book – why don’t they include a “Further Reading” section?

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