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

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.