First published on Fantasy Faction
The Traitor is a great example of modern political fantasy – as such, it’s entirely new to me. I’ve not read A Song of Ice and Fire so cannot view Dickinson’s book in comparative terms, as other readers seem to be doing. Instead I came to it as someone who prefers to read the kind of fantasy written by Naomi Novik, Trudi Canavan and Jen Williams (to name but a few).
This is the story of Baru Cormorant, a young woman who witnesses the insidious takeover of her island home, Taranoke, by the Masked Empire, dubbed the Masquerade by its opponents. Raised in their school, forced to abide by their sinister Incrastic laws, Baru makes herself into the perfect civil servant – all to bring down the empire from the inside.
That’s where this book differs from so many other fantasies. Baru is an accountant, not a warrior, or a mage, or a prophesised chosen one. She uses her brain and her rigorous education to ensure she’s indispensable to the empire. In short, she’s very good at her job. It’s refreshing when a female protagonist’s greatest weapon is her mind, not her arm.
Sent to Aurdwynn, a notoriously seditious land, Baru must use her role as Imperial Accountant to navigate a dangerous political landscape of warring dukes in order to root out the brewing rebellion. For this task, Baru’s weapon of choice is knowledge and power over Aurdwynn’s economy. And she wields it ruthlessly.
Ruthlessness is probably Baru’s chief trait. I loved her for it. The poisonous world of the empire, where anyone and everyone could be a spy, demands that Baru gird herself in armour that allows no room for mercy or compromise. Underneath it, she suffers, but cannot permit herself even a moment of weakness. Despite this, I found her easy to relate to, perhaps because she’s driven by such a powerful goal and no matter what situation she finds herself in, she keeps it forever in mind.
She’s surrounded by some excellent supporting characters. Tain Hu, the smoky-eyed duchess, is everything a traditional duchess isn’t. She’s wild, courageous, a formidable warrior and a highly dangerous woman, particularly to Baru, who finds herself falling head over heels for her. I loved Muire Lo too, Baru’s unflappable secretary, whose loyalties are a little murky, but who watches out for Baru constantly. There’s the enigmatic merchant, Cairdine Farrier, who is more than he seems, Xate Yawa, the terrifyingly cold Jurispotence, and a whole host of dukes, all of whom have different personalities, alliances and aims.
What drives the story (and why I kept reading) was the primal conflict at the heart of the book: Baru is a traitor, a rebel, but she works against the rebellion in service to the empire. It’s all part of a secret game plan that she guards even more closely than her ‘tribadism’ – her forbidden attraction to women. I thought this facet of Baru worked well. It ups the stakes in a society where sexual relations with a person of the same gender is a heinous crime. Under the empire’s extremely oppressive laws, bloodlines are manipulated in order to produce distinct races of people. As Baru often reflects, the Masquerade is in it for the long run and this social breeding is a frightening example of the subtle levels on which it operates. Military might is secondary. The empire seeks to change the very nature of a people through years of breeding and conditioning, presumably in order to increase their intrinsic value and make them easier to govern. The ethical complexity of genetic manipulation is especially poignant, considering we live in a world where it is already possible.
This is a slow burner of a book, which may make it tricky to get into. Baru’s world is beautifully, almost painstakingly described. Dickinson is known for his short stories and the opening chapter felt like one, laced with rich, vibrant language that really brought Baru and Taranoke to life. However, it’s hard to keep up that level of detail in a work of novel length and in some places the book is over-written, where a simple sentence could serve instead of a whole paragraph. There’s also a lot of hard-to-pronounce names – of peoples and places, religions and cults and dukes. I believe some of it could have stayed in the world bible, rather than appearing to overwhelm the reader on page. That could be me, however, as I prefer my worldbuilding on the lighter side.
Still, I was enthralled by the sheer cleverness of Baru’s financial manipulation, knowing how little I understand of economy myself. Baru uses her understanding of Aurdwynn’s economy both to cause inflation and later to control a vast and fractious army. It’s an unusual trait to find in a protagonist, at least for me, who tends to be attracted to sword and sorcery stories. I was both impressed and surprised by Baru’s decisions at the close of the book, which sets the stage nicely for a sequel.
If you like your fantasy political, replete with rich language, extensive worldbuilding and a protagonist to root for, give The Traitor a try. I for one am keen to follow Baru’s rise to power.