Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant is one of the standout epic fantasy novels of recent years, a clockwork political thriller, a rebuke of the tropes of epic fantasy, and a trenchant criticism of the systems of power, both overt and more sinisterly invisible, that keep our world turning.
The book ended on a note of triumph for Baru, who began the book in tragedy, orphaned by the colonial powers that absorbed her people, and, through ruthless pursuit of her ambition, finished it in something like triumph, having infiltrated the highest echelons of power in the Empire of Masks—albeit not without terrible sacrifice along the way.
With Baru finally positioned to take her revenge, we’ve waited three long years to see whether she’ll be able to maintain her humanity while battling an inhuman system—but the wait is almost over, as this fall, Tor Books releases The Monster Baru Cormorant. Today, we’re showing off the cover, with art by Sam Weber. Then, keep reading as Seth answers five questions about the book.
You’ll find both following the official summary.
A breathtaking geopolitical fantasy as fraught as Game of Thrones, The Monster Baru Cormorant is the long-anticipated sequel to Seth Dickinson gut-wrenching debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Baru Cormormant’s world was shattered by the Empire of Masks. To exact her revenge, she has clawed her way up razor-edged rungs of betrayal, sacrifice, and compromise, becoming the very thing she seeks to destroy.
Now she strides in the Masquerade’s halls of power. To save the world, she must tear it asunder…and with it, all that remains of her soul.
When your first book was released, you were a bit cagey about whether Baru would be getting a direct sequel, but the title suggests she’s front and center here. Was it always your intention to continue the story in this way?
Hi guys! Thank you for having me. Baru’s story was never meant to end at the Elided Keep and her exaltation. We’ve just gotten to the good part! She’s schemed and sacrificed her way into the council of crypto-overlords who puppeteer her world—now what does she do with that power? Can she possibly remain faithful to her original goals (liberate her home) when she has a new duty to Tain Hu, when she has to play the endless game of defending her own power, when she’s wracked by self-doubt and grief?
If she died or gave up today, before she really got to do any good, wouldn’t she more or less be a triumph for the Masquerade, rather than the long-game revolutionary she wants to be? Can she really justify what she’s done with the good she might do in the future? And exactly what does Tain Hu want of her? Burn down the whole world to set it free—is that liberation, or just berserker waste? Work within the Masquerade system to liberalize it—is that sensible, realistic change which preserves the good of imperial progress while stripping out the bad, or accommodation with a fundamentally evil and irredeemable system?
How much of the cost of revolution can you put on the subjugated before you’re worse than their oppressors? And given the betrayals Baru has executed, can she ever convince herself she’s worthy of love or happiness? Can she ever be worthy of those things again?
You can wrap up The Traitor Baru Cormorant’s operating principle in one sentence: “Every time Baru meets an obstacle, she can sacrifice someone to get past it.” The Monster Baru Cormorant is the antithesis. What do you do when you’re out of people to sacrifice? Do you start losing parts of yourself, too? Do you, maybe, need other people to be good and happy? If so, how do you learn to care for them again when you’ve thrown away everyone you ever loved?
That’s why I think Monster had to be its own book. It has its own central logic which is different from Traitor‘s.
It’s been three years since the first book, which will seem like a long time to some readers, though considering the intricate clockwork structure of Traitor, I’m not surprised—especially considering Monster is pushing 1,000 pages. What about this chapter of Baru’s story required the extra breathing room
Definitely the above, the need for a new emotional logic to the story. Traitor was a razor-sharp, cold, lonely story about one woman, and Baru mostly thought of other people in terms of their relevance to her mission or the pain their loss would cause her. In Monster, Baru is forced to start seeing other people as more fully human. Even some people she’d rather not!
You’re not actually going to get a thousand page book, I’m afraid; after editing we brought Monster down closer to Traitor‘s length. But there’s a lot more page space spent on the internality of characters. It means a less clinical, focused narration and more time spent tracing the digressions of Baru’s thoughts and feelings. It means giving a few glimpses into the minds of other characters—Xate Yawa, Apparitor, others I won’t spoil—so we can see the difference between how Baru perceives them and how they perceive themselves.
The intrigue is also a little higher-level than in Traitor, which was more or less a game played on a fixed board of Duchies. Monster digs deeper into the philosophical goals of the Masquerade’s cryptarchs and the internal tensions between Falcrest’s intelligence, legislative, and military arms. We also see a lot of Oriati Mbo, the federation of states to Falcrest’s south and the Masquerade’s only remaining rival for world domination. The Mbo has really different politics and beliefs than Falcrest, as well as their own secret history and forbidden knowledge. They’re still trying to figure out who to become to respond to Falcrest’s colonial aggression. Some of them believe the ethics of pluralism and multiculturalism will let them absorb and tame Falcrest. Others want to reach back into their history for older, more taboo weapons, because what’s the sense of taking the moral high road if your enemy’s waiting up there to push you off?
The political situation in Monster is more or less “fantasy Cuban Missile Crisis,” with the potential for a truly apocalyptic war simmering in the wreckage of the first book.
(Regarding that three year gap—I wish I could say that was all spent on productive development, but frankly a lot of it was wasted on a really bad bout of depression. This book exists now because I found a drug regimen that works for me. I want to be clear about that because I don’t like contributing to the myth of the Mystical Writing Struggle. No part of that time was “necessary” or “productive,” and all those months I spent trying to fundamentally alter my writing or draft a story which would please all the inner voices telling me Traitor was a waste of ink were months devoured by pathology. You don’t need to suffer to make good art. Hating everything you make does not have to an inextricable part of writing.)
The titles of both books—The Traitor, The Monster—suggest the lengths Baru is willing to go to sacrifice herself in the name of dismantling a corrupt world order. How will she be tested in this book?
I hope the title of each book is a question, not an accusation. The Traitor Baru Cormorant: who’s she betraying? Who and what is she loyal to? Who’s calling her a traitor, and should we care what they think?
Now, in Monster—how much short term damage can you justify with long term good? If your war against the Imperial hegemony seems like it mostly harms subjects of that hegemony, are you really fighting for those subjects? Can you think of yourself as a monster and still live, or will you collapse into grief and hate? Can you allow other people to think of you as a monster, or is some level of outside support ultimately necessary if you’re not a total sociopath?
If you could release a plague on the world that would definitely destroy the Evil Empire, but would also reset civilization to small village agriculture (as in our own world’s Bronze Age collapse), would you do it? Or would you let the Evil Empire fuck over its subject peoples in the name of avoiding a dark age? Is that a totally false choice?
If you live your life making ‘hard choices’ and ‘necessary sacrifices’, do they eventually become self-justifying? Do you start to create these choices for yourself, because you see the most painful thing as the most necessary and proper? Do you begin to replicate the tragedies Empire has inflicted on you in the tragedies you inflict on others?
I’m not here to write fiction that does bleakness for bleakness’ sake. If the world were all Hard Choices and Brutal Outcomes then Baru could at least be comfortable in it. But the problem is there’s also happiness, there’s small meaning found in little moments, there’s the possibility of good even in evil contexts. You need that full dynamic range to make the extremes genuinely moving. You need the possibility of utter nihilistic despair to make those bright points precious. You need the chance that it’s all going to end in tears for the gamble on hope to feel like it has stakes. In a lot of ways I think Traitor was sort of “showing the instruments”: see, it could go like this. But now Baru has to remember that just because things went badly once doesn’t mean tragedy is inevitable or destined.
The first words of Traitor were “This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.” The first words of Monster are “If something hurts, does that make it true?”
How has the changing political climate of the last few years informed the book and your own writing process?
It hasn’t. What was true about power then is true about power now. I do think a lot of people have realized the importance of social psychology in explaining mass political behavior—people do not rationally consume facts, they do not make evidence-based decisions, they are skewed by powerful heuristic biases and the need to create and protect group identities. The brain is not an analysis engine served by emotions, it’s an emotion and belonging engine served by analysis. If I were still in social neuroscience I imagine this would be a very frustrating sort of Cassandra age. “See, we were right, and man, we regret it.”
Something I hear a lot when talking to people my age is the role of uncertainty in our lives. There’s this huge asterisk dangling over us. “The rational* thing to do is to plan for the long term, so put your money in an index fund tracking the size of the economy, make choices now which will benefit you in 40 years.”
*”Unless all the trends of economic and human improvement are consumed by massively disruptive climate change and in 50 years the world is unforeseeably different.”
I understand the claim that life has always been like this, that the future’s always been uncertain. But that’s not really true. Climate change is an outside context problem: we’ve never faced an upcoming threat to all civilization that required collective coordinated action to avert, and there’s no reason to believe we’re actually capable of the aversion. Even nuclear exchange was a binary outcome—either it happened and we were all fucked, or it didn’t happen and life went on. There was no middle road of “your rational long term choices all turn out to be pointless and wasteful, but you’re still alive and need to find a way to exist in a new world.”
It’s a lot to deal with when you’re twenty-something and feel very stupid.
And to talk specifically about this cover, masks play a huge role in the series, in all sorts of ways. What does this cover’s rather sinister flaming mask tell us about what Baru will face in the sequel?
The lateralization of the fire is vitally important (don’t forget Baru’s hemineglect!) The fact that it’s possibly reaching out to find new fuel and possibly just eating her face is important. It seems like a fire that could still go out; it’s not yet all-consuming. The ambiguity, “is this a mask or is this a face,” is important, and a central theme in the book: where’s the line between pretending to believe something and actually believing it, if you act the same way as a result? Where’s the edge between a false identity for the world’s consumption and a true face?