Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015) is a political novel with a fantasy backdrop. When she is a child, the Masquerade Empire takes over Baru Cormorant's homeland, destroying her family in the process. Interestingly, one important way the empire cracks down is on sexuality. In Baru's homeland homosexuality and bisexuality are the norm (for example, she has two fathers) and the Masquerade harshly punishes that. She decides the only way to fight back and protect her home and way of life is to join the empire and wield power within it. She is thus a traitor all the way through and there is constant (and unexpected) treachery throughout the novel.

Imagine House of Cards combined with Game of Thrones. This is totally unlike George R.R. Martin's writing, though, which is long, immersive, and character-driven. Dickinson is sparer and the focus stays on the main character, though you don't really know what she's thinking. There is a lot about the logistics of empire and rebellion: taxes, psychology, military strategy, economic growth, etc. which all flows nicely.

There are two things that get mentioned multiple times that frame the book:

The Traitor's Qualm refers to the idea that potential rebels will stay publicly neutral as long as possible so that if things go bad, they can stay with the empire. There must be something about this in the political psychology literature but I don't know it. Baru spends a lot of time figuring out ways to court such allies.

The Hierarchic Qualm refers to the idea that you cannot sin when you are following a king or emperor's orders because you swore an oath to do so. It is just like Hannah Arendt's argument about the banality of evil. Adolf Eichmann said he wasn't guilty because he was just doing his job. That can justify massive bloodshed, as it does in this novel. And Baru is right in the middle of it.

It appears to be a two-book story and the sequel comes out in October 2018.


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