a review by Michael Feeney , in the genre(s) Fantasy . Book published by Tom Doherty Associates in October 2018
A Question. If something hurts, does that make it true? With this intriguing opener of a question begins Seth Dickinson’s The Monster Baru Cormorant, the first of three planned sequels to 2015’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Dickinson burst onto the fantasy scene with Traitor, a geopolitical epic which introduces Baru Cormorant of the island of Taranoke. After the ruling Empire of Masks, or Masquerade, ransacks her homeland, Baru is chosen by the devious Cairdine Farrier, an Empire representative, to receive an education. As a young woman, Baru is chosen to be the Empire’s Imperial accountant, a less than enviable position. Her new role leads her toward a path of political intrigue, and an end game plan of revenge against her new employers.
After a prologue introducing a new character, Monster begins where Traitor left off, drawing the reader in immediately in a conflict between Baru and her lover, Tain Hu, the victim of book one’s betrayal as hinted in the title. It serves as an exciting opener for a book series that is often wordy and dense (in positive ways - no page is wasted in these novels).
Where Traitor focused primarily on the Northern part of the world, Monster brings Baru to other parts of the map in front of the book, jumping from island to island within the vast Ashen Sea. All in all this sequel feels larger in scale. Dickinson’s world-building is grander. The reader will learn about the mighty Falcrest, the home base of the Empire of Masks, as well as their enemy, the indigenous people of Oriati Mbo.
Dickinson has a skill for making intrigue out of little to start with- for a novel about the economy in this fictional world, he makes the reader crave more detail. Even the Masquerade, the ultimate villains of this series, have an unknown figurehead with underlings serving as the primary foes for Baru and her political maneuverings.
New characters are introduced and each has his or her own agenda. Each person Baru encounters on her journey is intelligent and wears a mask either metaphorically or physically- indeed, an air of mystery shrouds the entire story in an inviting way.
Baru continues to be an interesting character, with Dickinson continuing to ask thoughtful questions:
Was goodness still good if you hewed to it out of total necessity? Was there, Baru wondered, any difference between being good and pretending to be good for your own gain, if you took the same actions in the end? Was there any difference between telling the truth unconditionally, and deploying the truth in service of your agenda, if you told the same truth?
It is thoughts such as these which make Baru a conflicting character to like sometimes- she is so driven by her goal of undermining the Masquerade from deep within that she is willing to sacrifice anything to achieve her goal. At one point, she ponders and rationalizes letting one person die so that her past atrocities will not have been done in vain. This is woman who will not be stopped, and her journey beyond into the latter half of this tale should be an intriguing one.
Written on 3rd December 2018 by Michael Feeney.
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