Saturday 26 January 2019

Review: The Monster (Baru Cormorant) by Seth Dickinson

The Monster is the sequel to The Traitor, and the second novel of Seth Dickinson's Masquerade series. This review will contain spoilers for the first novel, so if you haven't read The Traitor, try that book first! It's brilliant!

The Traitor ended with Baru Cormorant's cold blooded execution of her true love, Tain Hu, in order that Baru would be able to ascend to join the shadowy conspiracy behind the Masquerade's throne. The Monster more or less picks up there, except that it gives us more detail, much more detail. The final few scenes of The Traitor are expanded on, so we get the night before the execution, the execution itself, its aftermath, and a huge amount of plot regurgitation. It takes The Monster about a fifth of its length to get to the point where Baru has written all of the letters that were included in the Epilogue of The Traitor. In short, The Monster works at a very different pace.

It's impossible to talk about The Monster without referencing The Traitor, as the book is very heavily intertwined with the events of the first novel. However, something big has changed. If you were expecting to read a novel about Baru using her powers, you'll be very very disappointed. After the cold, ruthless, driven prodigy of the first book, Baru has turned into a woman who has very little agency in the second book. This is incredibly frustrating - Baru's ascent to this position was a novel of learning, scheming, adventuring, and momentum. Now that she is in place, she finds that her powers are limited, that she's still in a game of scheming, but despite everything she has sacrificed, she is still more a pawn than a player. Perhaps more a pawn than ever before. After a looong introduction, a meeting of most of the conspirators finally occurs, and Baru is given a mission (along with two equal companions). She is still not pulling the strings, really. There is still hierarchy above her, and the meeting ends with the start of a chase that will last the entire book.

The  Monster is a confused, ponderous, messy novel, just as Baru is now a confused, brooding, messed up woman. She never recovers from the twofold trauma that occurred at the end of The Traitor - her brief coma that left her unable to see anything that happens on her right side, and her choice to go through with Tain Hu's execution. Surrounded by equals, Baru flounders: being a savant and a prodigy and being given peerless powers helped her thrive in the first book, but without the autonomy she enjoyed previously, she spends much of the second book being dragged along by events, drinking by day and brooding by night.

Meanwhile, the book no longer just sticks with her perspective. Instead, we now get other viewpoint characters, and even first person scenes from a different viewpoint character. We get a series of flashbacks of three characters in a different civilisation growing up, we get a tableau and an ensemble and too many ideas, most of which are not nearly as interesting as the first book's focus on macroeconomics and fiscal policy.

In fact, things get so messy that the author (and editors) seem to lose track of some ideas. So we get a gender-reversed scene of street sexual harrassment and a supposed matriarchy and Baru thinking that she has "never felt powerless walking down a street", even though the previous novel included feminist Tain Hu warning her that every action a female icon makes will be used to reflect on her sex (i.e. Baru has lived in completely patriarchical societies in Aurdwynn and Falcrest) and even though not much earlier there was a comment that there are no true matriarchies. Or we get a character who decides they are neither male nor female and should be referred to using the "they" pronoun, and then the book forgets about this in a few scenes and uses a gendered pronoun (not because of a viewpoint character / narration choice, but simply out of oversight). Complicated names, complicated titles, different heritages and languages and conventions, a plethora of cultural notions, beliefs, sexual habits and taboos... The Monster is a novel trying very hard to be ultra-diverse, ultra-smart, ultra-complex, and in the end it fails on the most elementary aspect: it forgot to include a good story in the mix.

Baru does not know what she wants. Everyone is reactive. It's not so much a novel of shifting alliances and politicking and schemes, but a novel of chaos and (a character's) slow collapse and confusion. It's singularly unsatisfying, bogged down, and depressed. Characters move from place to place, but by the end of the book, very little has changed from the beginning of the book. All the same questions are still open. All the same problems still exist. Nothing has been resolved, no one has gained much, everyone's been treading water and running around in circles like headless chickens and no one has gotten anywhere good. The book fizzles out without a bang. In short, where the first book was epic and fascinating and charismatic and cynical and driven, this book is made of depression and trauma and bitterness and anxiety and stress, but not in a good way.

Unfortunately,  I did not find The Monster an enjoyable read. I feel sorry for the author, because it reads like something written by a depressed person in a gloomy dungeon, tied to a rack of too many ideas, unable to find the key that would free the narrative and make the story work. But I might still buy the next book, in the hope that Baru finally gets a chance to shape events, again.

Rating: 2/5

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