Reviewed by Marlene
I picked up The Traitor Baru Cormorant because I read the author’s commentary on something entirely different, which was probably this year’s Hugo kerfuffle but I now can’t find, and just plain liked the way he put words together. I’m still wondering what it was, but I’m really glad it inspired me to read Traitor Baru, a book which I just can’t stop thinking about.
As I read this book, I kept flashing back to a quote from Babylon 5, where Vir Cotto tells the representative of the Shadows exactly what he wants. Vir says, “I’d like to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike as a warning to the next ten generations that some favors come with too high a price.” Baru Cormorant is living this, but not from Vir’s side. It is much more likely that there are a lot of people on every side of the conflict she places herself in the middle of who want Baru’s head on that pike. She both gives, and most definitely receives, favors that come at much, much too high a price.
A price, I suspect, that she only thinks she understands at the beginning. But she is going to pay it just the same.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a story of conquest and empire, in spite of, or perhaps because, the conquering entity calls itself “The Republic” and not “The Empire”. It is a Republic that does not conquer through force of arms, or only through force of arms at last resort. The Republic of the Mask conquers with economic weapons, and through the strategic use of contagious disease. And by repressing the expression of any viewpoints contrary to their own through the mechanisms of religious orthodoxy and social hygiene.
It’s that social hygiene bit that is the most outre, at least to 21st century ears.
We see the way the Masquerade conquers through the eyes of one Baru Cormorant. She is a child when the Republic comes to her island home of Taranoke. Baru is also a mathematics savant – she sees what they are doing, but has too little life experience to understand why. What she comprehends is the result, especially the way it impacts her family.
The Masquerade breaks her island’s economy by purchasing real goods with paper scrip, and then requiring the use of that scrip for the islanders to buy their superior manufactured goods from the Masquerade. Barter dies out and is replaced by Masquerade backed scrip. Then the Masquerade traders need protection, so they bring in guards. And their people become numerous enough that they require their own religious functionaries, who decry the islanders practices of polyandry and polygamy as unclean. And finally, they take the best and brightest of the island’s young people, like Baru, and lock them into Masquerade schools where they can be brainwashed into being good Masquerade citizens, meanwhile letting plague carriers onto the island to spread diseases for which the islanders have no immunity.
If you think this sounds a lot like the way that aboriginal and native people have been treated in our world during the periods of Western colonization, you’re right. And it feels intentional.
What we have is a fascinating, intelligent and extremely fallible point of view character in Baru. She is smart enough to see what is happening, and to understand what is being done to her and her people. She doesn’t just want to fix it, but she is so certain of her supreme intelligence that she thinks she CAN fix it, if she is willing to pay a high enough price and throw enough of other people’s bodies at the problem.
Baru is not a particularly sympathetic character. She is driven, she is often outmatched, she is manipulative and she is very, very young and extremely arrogant through all of those facets. We see life beat down her sharp corners. And then, the story is turned on its head, over and over again.
Very often during the story’s many twists and turns, I found myself thinking that the adage that “Age and treachery beat youth and skill” is clearly not in common parlance in Baru’s world, because she finds herself getting caught by it over and over again.
One of the ingenious methods of social engineering used by the Masquerade is the concept of social hygiene. Not just the idea of cleanliness and antisepsis that we know, but something further. Not merely that homosexuality and promiscuity and any forms of marriage other than one man/one woman are against their religion, but that practicing any of those things can become part of the genetics of a person and be passed on to their children. So those behaviors must be wiped out or programmed away. The ways in which this is done are chilling. It also made me question. In our genetics we know that this concept is not scientifically accurate. But while these people read as human, this is not our Earth. It may be valid for their genetics. But I don’t think so.
But in the end, the story hinges on Baru. She is so clearly operating on the principle that her ends justify any means. When the story comes to its shattering conclusion, the reader is left wondering whether she will ever decide that some ends come with just too high a price after all.
This is a book that is going to haunt me for months.
I give The Traitor Baru Cormorant an A