A breathtaking geopolitical epic fantasy, The Monster Baru Cormorant is the sequel to Seth Dickinson's "fascinating tale" (The Washington Post), The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Her world was shattered by the Empire of Masks.
For the power to shatter the Masquerade,
She betrayed everyone she loved.
The traitor Baru Cormorant is now the cryptarch Agonist—a secret lord of the empire she's vowed to destroy.
Hunted by a mutinous admiral, haunted by the wound which has split her mind in two, Baru leads her dearest foes on an expedition for the secret of immortality. It's her chance to trigger a war that will consume the Masquerade.
But Baru's heart is broken, and she fears she can no longer tell justice from revenge...or her own desires from the will of the man who remade her.
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About the Author
SETH DICKINSON's short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons,Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. He is an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, winner of the 2011 Dell Magazines Award, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
In the Ruin of Them
At sunrise Baru shackled the prisoner for her drowning.
The Duchess Tain Hu smelled of brine and cold stone and the onions of her last meal. Last night they'd made their covenant. Until the dawn hours Tain Hu had whispered hoarse strategy to Baru: the names of her agents, and the shape of her plans. She gave Baru her arsenal, and her hope, and her faith.
"Remember. Remember the man in the iron circlet, and the ledger of secrets."
"I will remember," Baru hissed through raw-bitten lips. "I will."
Now Baru came close to offer her the manacles that would kill her. And the air between them shivered, like steppe grass under silver cloud, with the charge of their grief and their resolve.
Tain Hu shrugged into her chains. Tested the steel. "Good metal." She rolled her shoulders. "It'll hold."
She grinned and Baru couldn't stand that grin on that fierce unbreakable face. She stepped closer, quick, like an assassin gutting the duchess, and with her right hand she grabbed a fistful of Hu's hair. Into her ear Baru whispered one word in Urun, the tongue of Tain Hu's blood. Piercing. Like an eagle's kiss. Her lip brushed Hu's earlobe and they touched for the last time:
And with grim joy Tain Hu whispered back: "Long live the queen."
"Congratulations on your victory," Baru said, and she spread her hands a little, as if saying, look at me, I am your victory, are you pleased?
"I wish you'd done it sooner," Tain Hu murmured.
And everyone but Baru misunderstood her, everyone but Baru saw Tain Hu wishing the betrayal had come more quickly, and not the kiss. Only Baru saw the bitter love behind the bitter smile.
The Elided Keep's silent marines took Tain Hu down to the drowning-stone and chained her up for the judgment of the moon and stars. The tide would come in, like history, and swallow the traitor. Just as Falcrest would in time swallow the world — unless Baru Cormorant kept Tain Hu's faith, and disemboweled the empire from within.
Good-bye, Baru thought. Good-bye, kuye lam. I will write your name in the ruin of them. I will paint you across history in the color of their blood.
* * *
The Duchess of Vultjag went down roaring defiance.
She fought the rising tide with her chains wrapped up around her brawny arms and battlehacked fists. She wrestled the eyebolts and the pulleys drilled into the black rock. And she roared defiance against the Empire of Masks, the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, the Masquerade that pronounced death by drowning upon the traitor. The surf swallowed her. Still the chains groaned with her might. Still the sea frothed with her bellows.
She chose when and where she would die. She chose the meaning of her death, and she chose the method. Rare is that gift, isn't it? Rare is the choice to write the end of your own story.
So the end of her story is the beginning of another.
Not the story of Baru Cormorant, the girl who watched Masquerade merchanters coming down the reefs off Taranoke, and wondered why her fathers were afraid. Not the story of Baru Cormorant, the brilliant furious young woman who accepted the Masquerade's bargain: join Tain Hu's rebellion, gather all our enemies together, and betray them to us. Then we will give you the power to rule your own home.
Not even the story of Baru Fisher, the rebel queen who was, for one bitter winter and brief spring, Tain Hu's lord and lover.
This is the story of Agonist.
Baru Cormorant as a cryptarch: secret lord of the Imperial Throne.
* * *
The pale man with the rowan-red hair oversaw the execution. He had a stylus and a varnished writing-board, and a form clasped in a steel folio, a form for Baru to sign after she screamed for mercy. His name was Apparitor and he was there to answer when Baru begged. Let the duchess live! Please, I love her, let her live!
Then he would show her the writ of deferment.
I, Baru Cormorant, do order a stay of execution for the traitor Tain Hu,
And I do acknowledge that I order this stay in defiance of Imperial law, granted only by the extraordinary privilege of the Emperor, whose name cannot be known.
And I remand Tain Hu to the Emperor's custody, where her execution shall remain in abeyance so long as I provide faithful service,
And I do consent to whatever operations and interventions the Emperor sees fit to improve the prisoner's well-being.
But there would never be a signature. Baru never cried out for mercy, for mercy was not in Tain Hu's battle plan. Thus Baru drowned her beloved field- general in the morning tide.
This will be her legend. Listen, listen, do you know?
No living thing ever defeated Tain Hu in battle. Only the tide could fight her. Only the moon and the sea together could bring her down.
* * *
Now only the rush of the waves and the cry of the shorebirds.
Baru closed her eyes and felt the slam of the surf in her ears and heart. There were birds above, a great whirl of them, as if in her passage Tain Hu's soul had called up a maelstrom of wings.
Baru wouldn't look at the damn birds. Red-haired Apparitor paced and fretted behind her, and Baru thought he was waiting for her to look up from Tain Hu and count the birds. He thought it was Baru's tell. A sign that she was lying.
He wanted Baru to betray her horror.
Well, she'd vomit on him before she looked up.
"All right, then!" Baru clapped her hands, twice, briskly. There was a high ringing inside her, like a bell struck with steel, not quite hard enough to shatter. When Hu was giving her riding lessons she'd fallen and hit the stone, breath crushed out of her, a giddy emptiness,something huge has happened but I can't feel it yet.
Oh, my lady Vultjag, how will I do this? How can I carry this weight?
"All right?" Apparitor croaked. "All right what?"
She looked at Apparitor sideways, slyly. She had to pretend to be untouched by the execution, so that shecould be untouched by the execution. For what, in the end, was the difference between pretending perfectly to feel something, and actually feeling it? If you acted the same way, truth or lie?
"All right," Baru said, "I want to start learning my new powers. And issuing some edicts: I like edicts. Let's do it over breakfast."
"Breakfast? You're hungry?"
"Yes?" She offered him a gracious arm. "Will you walk with me?"
Apparitor burst into rage.
"You killed her! I can't believe you killed her!" He ripped the handkerchief off his neck, and the grief-knot at his throat came undone at the slightest pull, which a grief-knot should, that was the whole reason sailors called them grief- knots. He waved the silk at Baru like he was trying to wipe her up.
"Baru Cormorant, you fucking asshole, do you realize what you've done?"
Oh, I realize, oh gods, I realize nothing else! I killed her for political advantage! She could have lived and I did not let her live! What am I, Apparitor, what slithering beast could do this thing I've done?
Her mask almost slipped. She almost stared at Apparitor wild-eyed and screamed a high meaningless note. But it would not do. It would not do. She couldn't grieve now, she couldn't let herself be sorry. Tain Hu was counting on her. When you are disemboweled in battle, you tie your guts up tight, and you keep fighting. Later the wound can kill you. Once you've won.
Baru set off toward the Elided Keep. Listen: her boots crushed snail shells into the rock. When things break underfoot, you know that you are going forward.
"I know what I've done," she said. "I executed a traitor to the Imperial Republic and an obstacle to the progress of humanity."
"You executed your lover!"
"Are we sentimental people now? Is that the new game?"
"The game? Do you think I didn't care about that woman? She was my prisoner for weeks, she was brave, she was good —" Apparitor grabbed himself by the skull, his fingers spidered in his hair, his thumbs trembling on his chin. "Farrier taught you to do this, didn't he? That bastard Itinerant! He made you kill her!"
Baru laughed in shock. Her patron Farrier? How could Tain Hu's execution possibly work in his favor?
Apparitor was panicking. What a stupid fucking idea.
"I haven't seen Cairdine Farrier in some years," she said. "Since my first days as Imperial Accountant, actually. Come along, now. I need you to teach me my powers."
Everyone had strung out behind Baru like autumn geese, straggling and confused, asking each other what to do. The marines with their polearms, the spies who'd pretended to be Baru's staff, Apparitor's little retinue and his gold- eyed concubine boy. All of them began to follow her down the stone ridge, back to the Elided Keep. They were all watching her when she skidded to a stop in shock.
A ship had capsized against her fortress.
Oh — it was Apparitor's clipper. At high tide the crew must've used winches on the Elided Keep's battlement to tip the ship over, careening it on the beach. She was called Helbride, a ghost sliver of white wood and slim steel. Now the crew swarmed over her to clear the barnacles and foulage.
A gloved and masked sailor at the stern pulled a two-foot-long and squirming shipworm from the keel. Three huge teeth like half-shells flashed in the morning light. They ate ships; a nest of them must have gotten through the copper worm- armor.
That's me now, Baru thought. The worm beneath the armor.
Apparitor, dully: "She said you loved her." He was staring at his overturned ship as if he wanted very badly to push it back upright and sail away with the tide.
"Ah," Baru sighed, "well, I'm sure she had a great many strange ideas about me."
"She could've lived ..."
"No. She was guilty of treason. Anyway, you would have kept her in a cell, and tested her to madness." Baru talked to Apparitor but she was speaking to herself, trying to bargain down her scream. "This was the most humane option."
Humane. The word you use when you put down an animal. Why would she compare Hu to an animal? That was the wrong word. The wrong word.
"She certainly loved you," Apparitor said, with terrible resignation. "I'm sure of it."
"Oh, I slept with her once. Hardly a marriage."
"Fuck you," he said.
To lie like this! To lie about Tain Hu, about what lived between them! It was so anathema and yet so necessary: it felt like a razor unraveling her, one cut all the way from her anus to the back of her neck, degloving her whole body and turning her inside out so her secrets were on the outside to become her lies. "I was curious about her, and I always satisfy my curiosity. But of course it didn't last. Isn't that the nature of love between women? Unnatural and transient?"
Apparitor slugged her.
She deserved it, she did deserve it, she greeted his pale fist with her cheek and her upturned face. His knuckles tore the tip of her nose and Baru's body fired Naval System combat reflexes like lines of rocket fuel igniting — brace your back foot! Roll with the hit! Eyes open, Baru, no matter how much it hurts you keep your eyes open.
You watch the strike come in.
* * *
Truth, as hard as the fist:
Apparitor had his own lovers. He'd confessed it to Baru: sodomites get hot iron, but we do not envy tribadists the knife. And he remembered his men fondly, too. When she'd awakened from her coma after Sieroch, she'd seen him drawing a beautiful Stakhi man, nude, brooding. He drew men differently than the classicists. He put more thought in their faces.
Apparitor could never have killed his lover.
That was why the Throne possessed him, the way it possessed parents who couldn't drown their illicit children in vinegar, seditionists who couldn't recant their books and smash the presses, religionists who refused to abandon their gods.
Falcrest offered its Imperial agents a beautiful poisonous choice: a life of blackmail and control, or the death of your dearest deepest reason to exist.
Damn them. Damn them damn them damn them. Baru called on all the powers she could name for their damnation. Caldera gods, I am your daughter Baru, and I beseech you to awaken your molten stone and burn them. O ykari Himu, and Wydd, and Devena who stands between you, I call on your high virtues to punish Falcrest with storm, and with cancer, and with the excess of moderation which is called weakness.
Tain Hu wanted to live a free life.
Falcrest could not abide it.
So they decided to make Hu's life into an instrument of control over Baru.
But Tain Hu would not allow it. Tain Hu would not be an armature of slavery.
And now Baru had entered the innermost circle of Imperial power without any hostage to control her.
Oh gods, Hu, I cannot believe what we've done. I cannot believe what I must do next. And yet I am ... I amexultant. I am so excited to challenge the power that rules us. I am so excited to become that power.
This is my life's work and at last now it has begun in earnest.
Baru turned her stinging face to Apparitor, and the man flickered back into her awareness, like the memory of some childhood embarassment springing up uncalled for, as he passed across her midline from blind right to living left.
"I'll forgive that," she said, calmly, "on account of your masculine passions."
"You don't believe it," he snarled. He'd hurt his hand on her face and now he was wringing it pathetically. "You don't really believe all that Incrastic nonsense aboutdegenerate mating — you can't really believe it? A woman from Taranoke?"
"You and I," she said, spitting blood, grinning at him red-toothed, "you and I will be great colleagues, don't you think?"
"Tell me," he said, pleading now, "that you don't believe it?"
"Raise the corpse," Baru ordered. "Chop up the meat and scatter it for the gulls."
Apparitor pulled her around so hard she almost fell again. Her blindness — half the world, her entire right hemisphere, hidden from her awareness by a blow to the brain — swept south and then east, blotting out the ocean toward Taranoke her home, and then Oriati Mbo, and at last Falcrest, the heart of the Imperial Republic. Baru imagined her emptiness covering them, spreading, down past Oriati Mbo through the barrier jungles to Zawam Asu and out then into the sky and across the stars.
Apparitor started to shake her, wide-eyed and furious, that pale freckled face of his high with blood-color. He smelled of fresh laundry. He said, "She deserves a funeral!"
"Traitors don't get funerals."
"Then an autopsy! Surely her traits should be recorded —"
"We've nothing to learn from traitors. Cut her up for the birds." When the marines hesitated, Baru spread her hands, palms up, who am I, have you forgotten? "I said cut her up!"
Not even in death would Tain Hu serve Falcrest: not even as a pickled specimen or an entry in a catalogue of mental deformity. Baru would never let them map the rot of her body, never let them say, decomposition began in her liver, which had struggled to contain her sin. ...
No. Let Tain Hu be laid to rest the way Baru's parents taught her. Let the birds scatter her across earth and sky. That's how the Taranoki give their beloved dead back to the world. Ah, Baru, do you remember the ragged pink guts of your grandmother Pahaeon, carved with shell knives, salted with the iron salt, scattered across Halae's Reef for the gulls and the colorful fish? You were a little girl when Pahaeon died, and you didn't understand: that, more than loss, made you sob.
But a cormorant called to you across Pahaeon's funeral, and you stopped crying.
Baru remembered. She remembered all her dead.
"I'm going back to my keep," she told Apparitor. "Bring me a map of the world and the laws of my new power. And your boy, to write down my orders."
"Of course." She showed him her perfect bloody Incrastic teeth. "I'm not finished with Aurdwynn."
* * *
It was her fucking fortress: they'd told her so when she arrived, the exiles and condemned intellects who staffed this gray redoubt. For the duration of your stay, you are lord and master of the Elided Keep.
"What are you all waiting for?" she barked at the crowd of clerks and housekeepers peering through the bars of the tall, narrow portcullis. "The traitor's dead. Now we work!"
A murmur rushed through the masked assembly. Dead? How could she be dead? She was the hostage. ...
Was it, Baru wondered, the very first time a candidate had refused the bargain? How often had these walls of sloped granite looked down on mothers who begged for the lives of their bastard sons? Had the fortress stared, angular and indifferent, as candidates for the Throne admitted every kind of guilt to every sort of charge — the authorship of seditious texts, the exchange of illegal monies, adoption of a forbidden child, a murder of passion, an addiction to narcotics, religious rapture, royal ancestors, incest, incoherence of thought, the scars of self-abasement, profit off a great disaster, predatory moneylending, a taste for violence, perjury, perversion of a trial, visions, seizures, unfulfilled vengeance —
How many newcomers had stood at these galleries? Falcrest had destroyed King IV Asric Falkarsitte a hundred and thirty years ago. Had the Throne existed ever since?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Monster Baru Cormorant"
Copyright © 2018 Seth Dickinson.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Act One: The Fall of the Elided Keep,
1. In the Ruin of Them,
Interlude: The War Paper,
3. The Lever,
4. Neath the Dead Dog's Tongue,
5. The End of History,
6. The Lightning in the East,
A Story About Ash 1,
7. Hesychast, Whose Flesh Is a Temple,
8. Dinner, Destiny ...,
9. ... and Durance,
10. The Killing Woman,
Interlude: RNS Sulane,
Interlude: Admiralty War Plot,
Act Two: The Fall of the Llosydanes,
11. Scytales and Shao Lune,
12. The Llosydanes,
13. Baru's Dates,
A Story About Ash 2,
14. Is the Oath Kept?,
15. If I Tallied My Life Today,
17. The Mask Beneath the Mesa,
Interlude: The Llosydanes,
Interlude: The Mansion Hussacht,
Act Three: The Fall of Kyprananoke,
20. Glass Pierces Cheek,
A Story About Ash 3,
21. The Map Entire,
22. Baru in the Bilge,
A Story About Ash 4,
23. The Pithing Needle,
25. The Embassy,
26. The Black Emmenia,
Books by Seth Dickinson,
About the A,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Full Disclosure: This book was read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy) obtained via Netgalley from the publisher, Tor/Forge Books, in advance of the novella's release on October 16, 2018 in exchange for a potential review. I give my word that this did not affect my review in any way (if I'd not liked the book, I just would not have reviewed it). There may not have been a book I was looking more forward to this year than The Monster Baru Cormorant. This book is the sequel to The Traitor Baru Comorant, an incredibly dark/brutal book about a brilliant woman who decides to rise up the ranks in an evil repressive empire in order to destroy it from within....no matter the sacrifices she is forced to make in the Empire's service in order to rise up the ranks. Traitor is one of the few books that I've ever given a perfect 10 out of 10 score to, and it left off on an incredible cliffhanger. Monster is nowhere near as streamlined as Traitor, featuring some more elements of modern Epic Fantasy - multiple point of view characters, fantastical elements, etc - that didn't always work for me (the fantastical elements in particular). But the overall core of this book remains absolutely incredible and the result is a strong follow up that continues asking interesting questions as it follows its protagonist along her dark path. The book contains some amazing characters - some old (one old character returns and is spectacular especially in her profanity) and some new (the main antagonist, the Bane of Wives, is a perfect foil for Baru) to add to its tremendous protagonist, and the only time it didn't work for me is when it involved some new fantastical elements. Still these are minimal. Highly recommended.
I'm fascinated by this series and the world it contains. This book does spend a lot of time dealing with the aftermath of book one and setting things up for later books, but I was nevertheless interested in where it was going. I look forward to seeing where this all goes in future installments.