Publisher: Tor UK
Publish Date: 13 May 2021
Page Count: 784 pages
The Traitor Baru Cormorant (or The Traitor as it’s known in the U.K.) has been high up on my to-be-read list for five years now. The original cover illustrated by Sam Weber is undoubtedly my favourite book cover of all time – the vacant, shattered face and elegant font are stunning and seductive, providing a glimpse of the dark story within.
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Tyrant, so I finally dove into these hard fantasy books. I’d planned to write a review of the completed series until I found out that there will be a fourth instalment, after Dickinson’s draft of book two was split into what is now The Monster, followed by The Tyrant. So instead, I’ll provide a brief introduction to The Masquerade series, and a spoiler-free review of book three aimed at convincing new readers to pick up this incredible series. I’ve found the books challenging but deeply rewarding, and highly recommend them to fans of complex political fantasy.
“Trade season came around again. Baru was still too young to smell the empire wind.”– The Traitor
Baru Cormorant lives a quiet childhood on Taranoke with her mother and fathers, crafting telescope lenses from kelp ash to earn a modest living. As the island’s annual market hits full swing, a convoy of Imperial Republic ships arrives with their paper money and treaties, marking the beginning of Taranoke’s swift annexation by the Empire of Masks.
But the Imperial Republic arrives with more than just a monopoly on trade. Their notions of social hygiene and eugenics are at odds with the Taranoke way of life, bringing strange words like ‘sodomist’ and ‘tribadist’. After Baru eventually loses one of her fathers to the Republic’s insidious reform, she vows to earn her place within the Masquerade. And take it down from within.
“It’s not what the Masquerade does to you that you should fear, she wanted to tell Ake. It’s what the Masquerade convinces you to do to yourself.”– The Traitor
Gifted with numbers and intelligence beyond her years, Baru attends a Falcresti school in Taranoke. When she graduates with the title of Imperial Accountant, instead of earning a post in Falcrest, she is sent to the distant Aurdwynn where she is tasked with putting down a rebellion against the Republic. Baru must now become the fist of Falcrest in Aurdwynn, to stay their hand in Taranoke.
All this occurs in the first 50 pages of The Traitor, and it really is just the tip of the slowly sinking iceberg. Baru uses her accounting superpowers to become a powerful political figure and save Taranoke, but her journey is not without mistakes, compromises and tragedy. I’ve lost count of the ways in which she is emotionally and physically disfigured.
In The Monster, the extent of the Masquerade’s influence beyond the borders of Taranoke and Aurdwynn becomes apparent, and the powers that operate behind the mask of the Emperor are revealed to Baru. This entry ends with more mind-blowing ‘wtf’ moments.
“A theory of perfect rule… A means by which the Imperial Republic of Falcrest may be rendered causally closed, so that the sprout of every seed and the turn of every cyclone occurs in accordance with our predictions, and therefore in accordance with our decrees.”– The Tyrant
The Tyrant is the most recent instalment, and possibly my favourite one yet. If you’ve read books one and two, you can look forward to epic sea battles, the secrets of the Cancrioth revealed, and understanding the true purpose of the cryptarchy (and getting your mind blown multiple times, obviously).
The Masquerade is deeply immersive and darkly addictive. It’s a reading journey that is difficult to describe. The series demands a lot from the reader; the political machinations are complex, the characters are vast, and the history and setting of the story is ever-expanding. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little lost on occassion, but the payoff is always worthwhile.
In this and in its forbidding story, I would say The Masquerade could be compared to the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire (despite The Independent claiming that Baru makes Game of Thrones look like a children’s television series). However, I found Dickinson’s writing much more cerebral and philosophically probing. The entire series is a thought experiment that interrogates how cultures are formed, beliefs are shaped, and what exactly makes empires prosper. For Baru, it’s a constant struggle to understand the difference between pretending to act out Falcrest’s will, and actually obeying it.
Dickinson’s worldbuilding is uniquely abstract, full of pseudoscience and all the anachronisms of steampunk, invented philosophical frameworks and reimagined gender roles. Many fantasy worlds can be defined as broadly European-inspired or Asian-inspired, etc. This one simply is.
“Beneath the silk rig the man’s form could not be seen or selected as human. He was continuous with the weft of the Throne. Behind him the braids of silk spidered out through bolt and pulley to run away into secret corridors behind the wall. Arteries of secrets, pumping out into the world.”– The Monster
Dickinson’s mastery over language and writing devices is impressive. His prose transitions from poetically brilliant to shockingly vulgar (looking at you, Xate Yawa’s internal dialogue) in a heartbeat, delivering raw and thoughtful characters. He has invented words, devised languages and played with perceptions. Phrases and terms repeat throughout the text (savant, qualm, incrastic, cancer), flavouring the tone of the book. One device I particularly like is certain text that has been right-justified, the meaning of which becomes apparent later on.
These are just a few thoughts I’ve had about The Masquerade, but there is much more to discover. Admittedly I did have some reservations at first, but found it impossible not to get sucked into Baru’s story. It’s now one of my favourite series, and it will be haunting me for some time to come.
To learn more about Dickinson and his writing, check out his interesting AMA. The first question makes me laugh for being so on point: “Your writing delves deeply into a lot of topics, how do you know so much about everything?”
Many thanks to the publisher and Blackcrow PR for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!
Trigger warnings: Racism, misogyny, sexism, reference to FGM, homophobia, torture
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