In Seth Dickinson's highly-anticipated debut The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a young woman from a conquered people tries to transform an empire in this richly imagined geopolitical fantasy.
Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul.
When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire's civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.
Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it's on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.
But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.
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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
The Traitor Baru Cormorant
By Seth Dickinson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Seth Dickinson
All rights reserved.
Trade season came around again. Baru was still too young to smell the empire wind.
The Masquerade sent its favorite soldiers to conquer Taranoke: sailcloth, dyes, glazed ceramic, sealskin and oils, paper currency printed in their Falcrest tongue. Little Baru, playing castles in the hot black sand, liked to watch their traders come in to harbor. She learned to count by tallying the ships and the seabirds that circled them.
Nearly two decades later, watching firebearer frigates heel in the aurora light, she would remember those sails on the horizon. But at age seven, the girl Baru Cormorant gave them no weight. She cared mostly for arithmetic and birds and her parents, who could show her the stars.
But it was her parents who taught her to be afraid.
In the red autumn evening before the stars rose, her fathers took Baru down to the beach to gather kelp for ash, the ash meant for glass, the glass for telescope lenses ground flat by volcanic stone, the lenses meant for the new trade. When they came to the beach, Baru saw Masquerade merchant ships on the horizon, making a wary circuit around Halae's Reef.
"Look, Das," Baru said. "They're coming in for the Iriad market."
"I see them." Father Salm shaded his eyes and watched the ships, peeling lips pressed thin. He had the shoulders of a mountain and they corded as he moved. "Go fill your bucket."
"Watch." Father Solit, keen-eyed, took his husband's hand and pointed. "There's a third ship. They're sailing in convoys now."
Baru pretended to dig for kelp and listened.
"Pirates make a good excuse for convoy," Salm said. "And the convoy makes a good excuse for escort." He spat into the surf. "Pinion was right. Poison in that treaty."
Watching their reflections, Baru saw Solit take Salm's shoulder, callused hand pressed against his husband's bare strength. Each man wore his hair braided, Solit's burnt short for the smithy, Salm's an elaborate waist-length fall — for glory in the killing circle, against the plainsmen.
"Can you see it, then?" Solit asked.
"No. It's out there, though. Over the horizon."
"What's out there, Da?" Baru asked.
"Fill your bucket, Baru," Salm rumbled.
Baru loved her mother and her fathers dearly, but she loved to know things just a small measure more, and she had recently discovered cunning. "Da," she said, speaking to Solit, who was more often agreeable, "will we go to Iriad market and see the ships tomorrow?"
"Fill your bucket, Baru," Solit said, and because he echoed Salm instead of indulging her, Baru knew he was worried. But after a moment, he added: "Grind your glass tonight, and we'll have enough to sell. You can come along to Iriad and see the ships."
She opened her mother's hand-copied dictionary that night, squinting at the narrow script in the candlelight, and counted through the letters of the Urunoki alphabet until she came to: convoy — a caravan, or a group of ships, gathered for mutual protection, especially under the escort of a warship.
A warship. Hm.
It's out there, father Salm had said.
From the courtyard of their ash-concrete home came the shriek of stone on glass and the low worried voices of her mother and fathers, a huntress and a blacksmith and a shield-bearer. Worrying about the treaty again.
She looked that word up too, hoping to understand it, as understanding gave her power over things. But she did not see how a treaty could be poison. Perhaps she would learn at the Iriad market.
Baru put her mother's dictionary back and then hesitated, fingers still on the chained stitches of the binding. Mother had a new book in her collection, bound in foreign leather. From the first page — printed in strange regular blocks, impersonal and crisp — she sounded out the title: A Primer in Aphalone, the Imperial Trade Tongue; Made Available to the People of Taranoke For Their Ease.
There was a copy number in the bottom corner, almost higher than she could count.
* * *
Where the sea curled up in the basalt arms of the Iriad cove, beneath the fields of sugarcane and macadamia and coffee that grew from the volcanic loam, the market preened like a golden youth.
Since a time before Baru could remember how to remember the market had filled the Iriad docks, the most noisy and joyous thing in the world. There were more ships in harbor this year — not just Taranoki fishers and felucca, not just familiar Oriati traders from the south, but tall white-sailed Masquerade merchant ships. With their coming the market had outgrown the boardwalks and drifted out onto bobbing floats of koa and walnut where drummers sounded in the warmth and the light.
Today Baru went to market with a new joy: the joy of plots. She would learn what troubled her parents, this knot of warships and treaties. She would repair it.
Her family went by canoe. Baru rode in the prow while mother Pinion and father Salm paddled and father Solit kept nervous watch over the telescopes. The wind off the sea lifted flocks of scaups and merganser ducks, gangs of bristle-throated alawa giving two-toned calls, egrets and petrels and frigate birds, and high above great black jaegers like wedges of night. She tried determinedly to count them and keep all the varieties straight.
"Baru Cormorant," mother Pinion said, smiling. In Baru's eyes she was a coil of storm surf, a thunderbolt, as slow and powerful as sunlight. Her dark eyes and the teeth in her smile were the shapes that Baru imagined when she read about panthers. She worked her paddle in strokes as smooth and certain as the waves. "It was a good name."
Baru, warm and loved and hungry to impress with accurate bird-count, hugged her mother's thigh.
They found a quay to unload the telescopes and the market swept up around them. Baru navigated the crowd of knees and ankles, trailing behind her parents because the commerce distracted her. Taranoke had always been a trading port, a safe island stop for Oriati dromons and islander canoes, so Baru grew up knowing a little of the structure of trade: arbitrage, currency exchange, import and export. We sell sugarcane and honey and coffee and citrus fruits, mother Pinion said, and buy textiles, sailcloth, kinds of money that other traders want — Baru, pay attention!
Lately she always paid attention. Something fragile had come into the air, a storm smell, and not understanding made her afraid.
The market smelled of cooked pineapple and fresh ginger, red iron salt and anise. Through the drums and the calls of the dancers and the shouts of the audience in Urunoki and Oriati and the new trade tongue Aphalone came the ring of hard coin and reef pearl changing hands.
"Sol-i-i-i-i-i-t," Baru called. "I want to see — !"
"I know." Solit spared a smile from his work. He had been a smith, and he was generous to everything he made, including Baru. "Go wander."
Excellent. Now she would pursue the true meaning of treaty.
She found a foreign trader's stall painted in Masquerade white. The man who watched over the piled broadcloth — woven from sheep, which she understood were large dull beasts made entirely of hair — could have passed for Taranoki from a distance, though up close the different fold of his eyelids and flat of his nose gave him away. This was the first impression Baru had of the Falcrest people: stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat. At the time they hardly seemed so different.
The man looked bored, so Baru felt no qualms about climbing up onto his stall. He had guards, two women with shaved heads and sailors' breeches, but they were busy trying to bridge the language barrier with a young Taranoki fisherman.
"Hello, dear," the man in the stall said. He moved a stack of samples and made a space for her. Baru made curious note of his excellent Urunoki. He must be a very dedicated trader, or very good with tongues — and cultures, too, because traders did not often understand how to be friendly on Taranoke. "Do your parents need cold-weather cloth?"
"Why are they bald?" Baru asked, pointing to the guards. By gesture or linguistic skill, they had made their fisherman friend blush.
"There are lice on ships," the merchant said, looking wearily out into the market. He had heavy brows, like fortresses to guard his eyes. "They live in hair. And I don't suppose your parents need cloth, given the climate. What was I thinking, trying to sell broadcloth here? I'll go home a pauper."
"Oh, no," Baru assured him. "We make things from your cloth, I'm sure, and besides, we can sell it to traders headed north, and make a profit. Do you use the paper money?"
"I prefer coin and gem, though when I buy, I'll pay in paper notes."
He had to his left a stack of sheepskin palimpsest — ink-scratched records that could be scraped clean and used again. "Are those your figures?"
"They are, and they are certainly too important to show to you." The broadcloth merchant blew irritably at a buzzing fly. "Do your parents use paper money, then?"
Baru caught the fly and crushed it. "No one used it at first. But now that your ships come in so often, everyone must have some, because it can buy so many things." Then she asked about something she already knew, because it was useful to hide her wit: "Are you from the Masquerade?"
"The Empire of Masks, dear, or the Imperial Republic. It's rude to abbreviate." The man watched his guards with a paternal frown, as if afraid they might need supervision. "Yes, that's my home. Though I haven't seen Falcrest in some years."
"Are you going to conquer us?"
He looked at her slowly, his eyes narrowed in thought. "We never conquer anyone. Conquest is a bloody business, and causes plagues besides. We're here as friends."
"It's curious, then, that you'd sell goods for coins and gems, but only buy with paper," said Baru. The shape of her words changed here, not entirely by her will: for a few moments she spoke like her mother. "Because if I understand my figures, that means you are taking all the things we use to trade with others, and giving us paper that is only good with you."
The broadcloth merchant watched her with sudden sharpness.
"My parents are scared," Baru added, embarrassed by his regard.
He leaned forward, and abruptly she recognized his expression from markets and traders past. It was avarice. "Are your parents here?"
"I'm fine alone," she said. "Everyone here knows everyone else. I can't get lost. But if you want to buy a telescope —"
"I crave telescopes," he said, perhaps thinking she had never heard of sarcasm. "Where are they?"
"Up there," she said, pointing. "My mother is the huntress Pinion, and my fathers are Solit the blacksmith and Salm the shield-bearer."
At that his mouth pursed, as if the idea of fathers troubled him. Perhaps they had no fathers in Falcrest. "And you?"
"My name's Baru," she said, as names were gladly given on Taranoke. "Baru Cormorant, because a cormorant was the only thing that made me stop crying."
"You're a very clever girl, Baru," the merchant said. "You're going to have a brilliant future. Come see me again. Ask for Cairdine Farrier."
When he came to speak to her parents later, he could not seem to stop looking at her fathers, and then her mother, and pursing his lips as if he had swallowed his own snot. But he bought two telescopes and a set of mirrors, and even wary Salm was happy.
* * *
The last Masquerade convoy of the trade season circled Halae's Reef and anchored off Iriad harbor in the company of a sleek red-sailed frigate — the warship that father Salm had expected. Barking sailors swarmed her deck. A child with a spyglass might, if she were too curious for her own good and too poor a daughter to attend to her work, climb the volcano and watch their proceedings all day long. Baru had such a spyglass, and she was just that kind of daughter.
"They have soldiers on board," Baru told her parents, excited to discover such a portentous thing herself. Now she could be included in the courtyard councils and whispers of poison treaties. "With armor and spears!"
But father Salm did not buckle on his shield to fight them. Mother Pinion did not take Baru aside and explain the taxonomy of sergeants and officers and the nature and variety of Masquerade weapons. Father Solit fed her no pineapple and asked for no details. They worked in the courtyard, murmuring about treaties and embassies. "Once they have built it," Salm would say, "they will never leave." And Solit would answer in flat fighting-without-fighting words: "They will build it whether we sign or not. We must make terms."
Feeling neglected and therefore unwilling to attend to her chores and figures, Baru nagged them. "Solit," she said, as he bagged their kelp harvest to carry to the burners, "when can you start smithing again?"
When Baru was young he had made beautiful and dangerous things out of ores that came from the earth and the hot springs. "Once the trading season's over, Baru," he said.
"And will mother go across the mountain, into the plains, and use the boar-killing spear you made for her?"
"I'm sure she will."
Baru looked happily to her mother, whose long strides and broad shoulders were better suited to the hunt than to telescope-making, and then to her other father, who could drum as fiercely as he could fight. "And when the soldiers come, will father Salm use the man-killing spear you made for him?"
"You're covered in filth, child," Solit said. "Go to Lea Pearldiver's home and get some pumice. Take some paper money and buy their olive oil, too."
* * *
Baru read at great length about treaties and currency and arbitrage, and when she could read or understand no more, she bothered mother Pinion, or sat in thought. Clearly there had been some mistake: her parents had been happier last year than this.
The trend would have to be reversed. But how?
At Iriad market the merchant Cairdine Farrier sat in his stall with his two guards, who had the satisfied look of gulls. That market fell on a stormy end-of-season day, gray and forbidding, close to the time when the Ashen Sea's circular trade winds would collapse into winter storm. But the Iriad cove sheltered the market from the worst of the chop and the drummers still drummed. Baru made straight for the wool-merchant's stall.
Farrier was speaking to a Taranoki plainsman who had clearly come all the way across the mountain, and Baru had always been taught not to speak to plainsmen, so she went to Farrier's guards instead. The bald women looked down at her, first with perfunctory regard, then irritation, and then, when she stayed, a little smile — from one of them, at least. The other woman looked to her companion for guidance, and thus told Baru that they were probably soldiers, and also which one was in charge.
Her reading and her thought had not been idly spent.
"Hello, little one," the woman in charge said. She had skin the color of good earth, wide lips, and brilliant blue eyes like a jungle crow. She wore a stained white tunic with her breeches. Her Urunoki was as superb as Cairdine Farrier's.
"You've been here all season," Baru said. "You never leave with the trading ships."
"We'll go home with the last convoy."
"I don't think you will," Baru said. The other woman straightened a little. "I don't think you're Cairdine Farrier's personal guards, or even merchants at all, because if you were you would have learned by now that you don't need guards at Iriad market, and he would have sent you to find more business."
The stiff woman said something in Aphalone, the Falcresti language, and from reading the dictionary Baru caught the words native and steal. But the woman with the blue eyes only knelt. "He said you were a very clever girl."
"You're soldiers, aren't you," Baru said. "From that ship. The warship that stayed here all season, anchored out of sight while the other traders came and went, sending back your reports. That's obvious, too. A trader wouldn't learn a little island's language as well as you have, which makes you spies. And now that the trade winds are dying, your ship's come in to harbor to stay."
The blue-eyed woman took her by the shoulders. "Little lark, I know what it means to see strange sails in the harbor. My name's Shir and I'm from Aurdwynn. When I was a child, the Masquerade harbored in Treatymont, our great city. They fought with the Duke Lachta, and I was scared, too. But it all ended well, and my aunt even got to kill the awful duke. Here — take a coin. Go buy a mango and bring it back to me, and I'll cut you a piece."
Baru kept the coin.
At the end of the day the red-sailed frigate in the harbor put down boats. The soldiers began to come ashore, led by officers in salt-stained leather and steel masks. Through her spyglass Baru watched Iriad's elders escort the Masquerade soldiers into their new building: a white embassy made of ash concrete.
Excerpted from The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. Copyright © 2015 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book ripped out my heart and slam dunked it in glacial water
I couldn't put it down
Ahoy there me mateys! With an awesome title and premise, this certainly struck me fancy. So I commandeered a copy. This geopolitical book stars an accountant, Baru Cormorant. Her kingdom has been conquered, in the name of progress (of course!), by the Empire of Masks. A young child, Baru is considered bright and precocious and is offered a place in the Empire schools. As it is with any colonization, the goal is to erase Baru’s customs, culture, and loyalties to her past and thus make her a willing tool in serving the Empire’s goals of conquest and subjugation. But even as Baru excels in school and absorbs its mannerisms and lessons, she has a stubborn spark of hate for all that the Empire has taken in exchange for “civilizing” her. The Empire’s first test of her abilities is to place her as the accountant to another kingdom that the Empire is trying to swallow whole. The task is thankless, dangerous, and seemingly doomed to fail. But Baru is determined to control the purse strings of the country and scheme her way to success. Writing about this book makes me appreciate it much more than after I finishing reading it. For me, Baru was admirable but impersonal and aloof. These two qualities that served her well in her task but made it hard to love her as a character. Additionally, with all the political intrigue, I did really know the true personalities or desires of any of the other characters either. Normally this wouldn’t bother me but I always felt like an omnipresent, indifferent observer watching Baru’s tasks. While I enjoyed watching an accountant manipulate those around her, there were parts of the story that I found boring. For example, a lot of the book deals with revolution from within and siege warfare and some guerrilla tactics. It was based on the economics of political wrangling and so not a lot happens plot-wise in those sections. It was hard to keep meself occupied and interested in these parts. To be fair, the colonization aspects were engaging. Is better food, hygiene, and medicine worth the exchange of declaring all relationships that aren’t heterosexual monogamous ones to be anathema? Is choosing to fight to the death better than losing yer culture and history? Can ye learn to live, love, and be absorbed into the society of the oppressors who use plague and pestilence as a combat tactic? The book made me think of historical times in our own human culture where these tactics were used. The British Empire. The Roman Empire. The Ottoman Empire. The Aztec Empire. I will say that I found the climax and conclusion of this first book to be wonderful. So while I only found book one to be okay, I might possibility pick up book two to see what Baru gets herself into next.
Deep world-building, interesting characters, and a complex plot. Follow Baru Cormorant as she works from the inside to take down the empire that conquered her homeland. Absolutely one of the best books I've read all year. Cannot recommend it highly enough.
Clever and haunting and imaginative. Can t wait to read it again.