Have Our Cake But Not Sure We Want To Eat It Too
The story of an evil Empire is not particularly new—nor is the plot to overthrow it, spearheaded by an unlikely young heroine from a native village. But a heroine whose powers are economic? That’s new.
There are plenty of strong points to The Traitor Baru Cormorant—Seth Dickinson’s polished and imaginative prose, a richly-detailed historical and philosophical setting, a number of surprising plot twists (maybe one too many), and highlighting sexual equality in a fantasy setting. But what really shines are the economics: the evil Empire conquers with paper money and superior trade practices, the heroine puts down and starts rebellions through the power of coin, and even the characters caught in feudal ways of thinking are forced to bow to the believeable dynamics of wealth Dickinson works into his book.
Economics, arguably what drives most wars and cultural shifts, is often the weakest link in fantasy: impossibly rich castles are built on the backs of bronze-age serfs, gold is minted from hills without thought to how that would deflate prices, and we typically get a frustrated meeting or two between the King and his Treasurer to add a little secondary tension to the main plot. Not so in The Traitor Baru Cormorant: economics take front seat, making and breaking Empires, and it’s awesome. Would that as many authors had a better sense for this in their work.
Unfortunately, the rest of Dickinson’s worldbuilding and character development doesn’t live up to his financial nuance. For most of the book we are in a familiar landscape of feudal-Europelike duchies, and the egos and goals of his characters offer few surprises, nor do they change much in the course of the book, beyond perhaps shifting loyalties. The book’s namesake main Baru Cormorant starts off quite likeable, a conquered young girl with a secret (desire for woman in an Empire where it’s seen as deviant) or two (a hidden agenda to destroy the Empire from the inside). She doesn’t change in the course of the book so much as is forced to give up more and more in her quest for political revenge—and (not to reveal too much) ends up giving up so much it gets hard to identify with her and her goals. A quote on the jacket describes the book as harrowing, and it is that—but harrowing is not always fulfilling: we end not with a transformed character so much as a broken (and thoroughly traitorous) one. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a happy ending, but Baru’s final moves destroy most of what I liked about her, and come with a plot twist that is hard to buy (a feint within a feint within a feint).
This is the problem with fantasy: many of us read it because we love the tropes, while at the same time wanting something new. Dickinson delivers on new twists—maybe one too many, in terms of plot and character. Rather than having our cake and eating it too, we end up full of something we aren’t sure, in the last bites, we wanted so much of. If harrowing is your kind of cake, though, or you’re a fan of richly metaphorical writing, or just want to see economics done right, you could do much worse than picking up The Traitor Baru Cormorant