Saturday, 12 January 2019

Review: The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor (also known as The Traitor Baru Cormorant) is a novel set in an alternative world with alternative peoples, cultures, history. Unlike Westeros, it has no dragons, no ghosts, no magic - or at least, it does not have them yet, not in the parts of the world that this novel takes place in.

We first meet Baru Cormorant when she is a little girl in Taranoke, a volcanic island inhabited by fierce and loving people. Her family consists of two fathers and one mother, and life in Taranoke is seemingly uncomplicated when it comes to matters of society. There is sex equality, liberty, tolerance. There are also skirmishes between tribes, little wars, diseases, but Baru is as yet untouched by trauma.

Then, Empire arrives. The empire of Falcrest, the Maskerade, sends ships and goods and trade and comes with innovations like paper money and standard currency, with technology and medicine and progress. Baru is fascinated by the ships, fascinated by the people, fascinated by the way her parents are scared and the way her people trade their freedoms away for improvements in living standards and consumer goods. Soon, she is offered a place in an Imperial school, where she has a chance to learn so much about the world...

...but the most memorable lessons are not the ones about astronomy, navigation, mathematics. Baru's mind loves those things, and she excels, but they do not shape her soul. Instead, it is what happens to one of her fathers that leaves a mark on her self. Or what happens to her people while she is kept safe in school - a mass dying, disease and catastrophe, also the result of engagement with empire. And what happens to lesbians, gays, people who do not fit the empire's principles of "incrastic" hygiene.

Eventually, Baru leaves her island, aiming for the heart of the empire. Aiming to change.

The Traitor is an amazing novel. It is told in dramatic, epic prose. It is a novel that looks at the world through the eyes of accountancy, macroeconomics, history, and wonders about systems, changes, individuals, compromise, absolutism. Falcrest is a strange empire, filled with persecution, racial theories, eugenics and terrible persecution, but also with meritocracy, scientific progress, capitalist enrichment and even a certain kind of democracy. And power in that empire is not wielded by an individual, but by a cabal of people who hold the power to destroy each other, but who conspire together to keep wielding the power in their little group.

The Traitor is a novel of political theory and accountancy and grand drama. It's much more overtly interested in theory and philosophy than Song of Ice and Fire, but similarly epic in scope. Reading it a second time (as the next novel in the series has finally been published), it felt like a somewhat cold and ruthless and cynical novel - but that is the point. Baru is a ruthless character, a player, an operator, someone who is driven and hungry to succeed no matter the cost. The fact that she is not a psychopath makes the book all the harder to read, as she is all too aware of the costs of her actions.

I still recommend The Traitor unequivocally. Few novels made me sit up and think as much as this one. Now, in 2019, I think the novel grossly overestimates the influence and effectiveness of intelligent conspiracies, and woefully underestimate the impact of chaotic elements...  the world is apparently run by stupid conspiracies of stupid people being stupid. The past few years have been a hard lesson in how shameless, overt and incompetent the powers that be can really be. So the novel now feels ridiculously idealistic in its belief in the fundamental competence of the main actors that shape the world, even if they are mostly evil.

Still, despite having aged less well than I'd thought, Baru Cormorant is worth your time.

Rating: 5/5

PS: I also reviewed The Traitor Baru Cormorant in 2015, when I first read it.