Warning: This The Monster Baru Cormorant article contains MAJOR spoilers for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, the previous book in the series.
At the same time as fantasy fiction can provide an escape, it can also explore real-world policies and conflicts. Political epic The Monster Baru Cormorant is more surgical exploration than escape, a bloody hunt for all the wrongs in the body politic. It explores what it means to fight an empire from the inside out, and employs a particularly remarkable protagonist to do it.
The eponymous Baru has committed atrocities, from a national scale to the personal blow of overseeing the execution of her lover, and the novel uses her perspective to both comment on the nature of empire and explore a singular story.
The Monster Baru Cormorant, out Oct. 30, follows 2015’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Baru herself is a math prodigy, skilled in manipulated finances and systems. She joins the empire of Masks in an effort to take revenge after the empire colonizes her home country, killing and brainwashing the people she loves. Convincingly playing the part, though, requires enabling those techniques the empire uses to spread across the known world.
As a morally dubious protagonist, Baru is not alone in fantasy fiction. (Her status as a lesbian woman rather narrows the list of comparable candidates.) In a recent example, Yoon Ha Lee’s series Machineries of Empire also features a protagonist who commits atrocity in the name of a greater cause. Shuos Jedao is known for being a renowned general who destroyed his own fleet. The series gradually explores his motivation, and the process of him essentially creating a moral philosophy from scratch occupies much of the trilogy. (Seth Dickinson refers to Lee in his acknowledgements in Monster.)
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch also asks us to follow a morally dubious protagonist, a Robin Hood-esque rogue who tortures his enemies. Locke lives in a world of corrupt Mafia-esque officials, and is, primarily, fighting against people who would or have done harm to him. The focus on empire is not the same, but the willingness to follow a sometimes cruel protagonist is.
As Traitor dealt with Baru trying to do the right thing from inside the empire, the second novel asks whether that is even possible. Baru doesn’t always seem to understand the intensity of her atrocities. At one point, she throws the economy of an area into shambles, then thinks back on it much later with distant, brief horror. That horror is always logical to the point of coldness: she wonders which actions will have consequences, but does not change her course. With rapid-fire delivery of ideas, second-guesses, and opinions that Baru holds but which the novel clearly does not intend to have authoritative weight. Baru is unreliable in a carefully balanced fashion. (Dickinson spoke about writing Baru’s layers and the difference between the two novels in our recent interview.)
Does the fact that Baru does not act on her moral qualms really mean she does not understand them? Some characters have occasion to call her utterly cold. But when alone she is clearly holding in great emotion. After holding a calm and flinty conversation, she throws up from stress and grief and then moves on. (The series is chock full of grim and fascinating detail: “Baru’s tongue stuck to her palate when she breathed.”)
The empire, too, is built on inner conflict, or so some characters theorize. Some say it is built to fail, others that it exists as a mechanism to create a middle class blind to the expansionary wars and other humanitarian horrors that allow them their portions of wealth and stability. The colonial machine eats everything. Baru over-thinks and constantly re-evaluates her own thoughts. She notices that “She so rarely spent (imperial) lives. Somehow she kept tangling with the provincials …”
The Empire is designed to put its most vulnerable people at the margins, and so to fight within it she must harm the very people she tries to save. This is particularly noticeable when she fights against some of the very rebels she once helped. Meanwhile, other people in power tell her that the empire is built on contradictions and make jokes “in that we’ll both have to pretend we think it’s a joke so we can work together civilly.”
(There, too, is the possibility that this sort of story might turn into “disaster porn,” too blisteringly real or too guilty to be palatable. Some scenes are terrifying, more so for the utter conviction of the characters involved. At what point does such terror become indulgent? Especially in the first half of the book, when the story moves slower, it can feel like grim for grim’s sake.)
Baru’s inner conflict is tightly tied to her national-scale schemes. Baru is traumatized and depressed, with some of her coldness attributable to these. Some scenes made me wonder whether the book would question whether this justified any of her actions, but the text seems largely indifferent to the question. Her depression and grief are states, and empire is another.
To me, Baru’s coldness represents a depression of circumstance. She is grieving for her lover and herself. So, too, is the empire itself a circumstance that exacerbates her grief. She cannot talk her way out of hopelessness if hopelessness is the water in which she swims, and if the people around her speak of the empire has something inherently endless. After all, it is built like a bridge, with sway to give in the wind. Hopelessness must be made an inherent part of the machinery for this empire to work, one character notices.
Even Baru’s guilt is part of the machine, another character suggests. “Of course you want blame … you want to be in charge of everything, don’t you?” To many characters, Baru is a villain. After all, her guilt has not swayed her from any of her actions.
There are moments of hope. Baru’s work has entirely separated her from any network of friends she once had, and the novel cleverly forces her to connect with others. She finds it difficult to do so, between her trauma and her natural inclination for hard numbers. (In childhood, she possessed both: an affinity for counting and a deep love for her family.)
Still, Baru’s crimes are many, including betrayal and cruelty and internalized racism. She uses people and then discards them, as she did with her lover—even though both of them planned to use that loss to strengthen the rebellion. Is that a good act or bad? What is the functional difference between heroism and hopelessness? Monster and the books that will follow it don’t have any easy answers to that, but it does have brilliant illustrations of possible permutations of the question.
So maybe, to connect with other people will help her bring down the empire. But this is not a series from which I expect a trite answer: if it comes to the conclusion that friendship topples empires, it will come at it with a thorough examination of systems and a ruthless eye for the power of financial collapse. When someone suggests that human connection is key to saving lives, Baru immediately wonders whether the “magic” they believe in actually has any effect on the real world.
Morally-dubious protagonists subvert the idea of the fantasy hero as an force for good. But Dickinson’s series is not the same type of sordid subversion such as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (published 1977-2013), which used its protagonist’s personal repugnance to attempt an edgy, “realist” portal fantasy. Instead, the system is evil, and whether Baru can separate herself from it (or be seen as separate from it) is the novel’s essential question, one that has real-world connotations for all of us.
Nothing can survive contact with colonialism without touching it. It’s right there in the title. For now, Baru is the protagonist, but she has become a monster.
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