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Fantasy Round 55: Chronic Backstabbing Disorder


The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a highly accurate title, and the character definitely suffers from one of the variants of the tvtropes malady in this post’s title.

The book is a fascinating ride — although I don’t recommend it if you’re looking for something cheerful and uplifting.  Major spoilers below.

The cover is fairly clearly symbolic, and likely references the colloquial name of the empire in the story — The Masquerade — and the fact that all its officials wear masks.

Is This Fantasy?

While clearly set in an alternate world, it’s not entirely clear that this novel should be categorized as fantasy.  There’s no magic, no mythological animals, no supernatural beings.  Nada.

The closest that comes to this are some of the methods used to mold the minds of the citizens of the Empire of Masks, or Masquerade.  (Not to be confused with The Masquerade of TVTropes.)  These methods, while of uncertain efficacy, are all entirely mundane.  They are reminiscent of the basics surrounding classic psychological experiments… many of which would be unethical to apply to people.

Perhaps that could be said to make a deliberate point: all of the monsters are human.

Colonialism Sucks

It really does.

The protagonist, Baru Cormorant, is originally from an island.  Said island is gradually conquered by the Masquerade.  The Masquerade gets a foothold through trade, gradually distributing its paper script.  When Baru’s people have a dispute with another group, the Masquerade’s forces intervene and make it bloodier than it needed to be.

Baru’s family is broken up because the Masquerade does not approve of her trio of parents, and she is sent to a boarding school to learn “better”.  Baru learns the Masquerade’s primary language.  Baru eventually learns everything, and decides to work within the system to gain power.

A plague inevitably sweeps through the island.  The indoctrinated children are vaccinated, but not their families.  Many people die.

The Masquerade conquers slowly and safely this way.  Then it pursues its goals of solidifying power and eugenics.

Once she’s educated, Baru is sent away… to be an accountant in another conquered province, and to help bring it more firmly under Masquerade control.  She ends up perpetrating the against these other people many of the same things done against her own.  For the sake of gaining enough power to free her own homeland, eventually.  Maybe.

These echo many terrible, terrible atrocities done for the sake of power and for “improving” life for the natives.  Never mind how much it tears their society apart… or how much that destruction adds to the empire’s power.

It’s all too believable.

This Can Only End In Tears

Baru betrays everyone.

Her family (to learn from the Masquerade), the Masquerade (first to keep the major province under control, and then to join a rebellion), her secretary (by not warning him about what she was doing, which got him killed), her subordinate in running the banks (by ruining his job, and forcing him to fake a relationship with her), several of the province’s lords (murdering them in their beds to keep the rebellion going), the rebellion and the province’s people (turning them over to the Masquerade to be crushed, as was the plan all along), and her lover (Baru trieds to get the duchess out to safety before the rebellion ends, but she is caught and torturously executed by the Masquerade).

And Baru?  She gains power.  Recognition by those with power.  A chance to join the circle of secrets, the people behind the masks who run the Masquerade.  She plans to use that knowledge and power to destroy the Masquerade, and gain freedom for her homeland.

The province she brought to heel along the way was mere collateral damage.

And that’s where the book ends.  Baru has no true friends; only subordinates she trusts will follow her orders.

Given the situation, and all the terrible things she’s already been willing to do… I don’t think she’s going to get what she wants.  And even if she does, it’s going to be tainted by all the blood on her hands.

There is, apparently, a sequel planned.  While I’m sure it will be well written, I’m… not sure I want to read it.  It’s probably going to be super depressing.  Because I don’t see any way to get to any kind of happy ending from here.

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