The Monster Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #2)
by Seth Dickinson
Published October 30th, 2018 by MacMillian-Tor/Forge
From Goodreads: Baru Cormormant’s world was shattered by the Empire of Masks. To exact her revenge, she has clawed her way up razor-edged rungs of betrayal, sacrifice, and compromise, becoming the very thing she seeks to destroy.
Now she strides in the Masquerade’s halls of power. To save the world, she must tear it asunder…and with it, all that remains of her soul.
Thanks to the success of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire as well as other geopolitical fantasy series, morally gray characters conniving their way into power are popular. With his debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson set himself apart from the pack with the diversity of his characters and the strangeness of his world. Though it’s set in an empire that feels, culturally, like it’s set during the Renaissance, there appears to be no magic. And yet there is enough technology to give it a science fiction edge although the characters fight with swords and crossbows.
Then there is the diversity of its characters. The Empire of Masks has its eye on cultures and kingdoms that have their foundations in Africa and Southeastern Asia, as well as the more expected Western European traditions. But while the Masquerade is powerful and nearly impossible to resist, it does not conquer through straight out war. It sidles up to you, puts its arm around you and whispers sweet promises into your ear while simultaneously undermining everything you’ve known.
Into this world walks Baru Cormorant, a prodigy marked for greatness by those in power who carries secrets of her own, namely that she wants to destroy the Masquerade and thereby save her home country of Taranoke. Baru paid a terrible price to get where she is now, though. In the first book, she was sent to Aurdwynn to try to bring it properly under the Masquerade’s control, but attempting to do so required her to betray nearly everyone around her and make a horrific sacrifice.
In book two, Baru is doing everything she can to ensure that sacrifice was not in vain. Now that she has the power she was hoping for, she must outmaneuver her opponents and make careful alliances, all the while wondering if she isn’t already being controlled by the political puppet master who truly controls the empire.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant was a gripping tale of revolution, betrayal, loyalty, and the power of closely held secrets. While I predicted one aspect of the outcome, I did not see everything else bearing down on Baru, nor did I notice the clues that likely would have told me to expect the unexpected. Dickinson told his story masterfully, and I couldn’t put the book down even though it required all of my attention to keep track of what was going on.
The Monster Baru Cormorant expands upon the world of and around The Masquerade while ratcheting up the political tension and action. This, I think, is detrimental to the story. There seem to be battles and fights at every turn and while I do not mind action-packed stories, the sheer number of characters working at cross-purposes was overwhelming, giving neither Baru nor I, as the reader, space or time to pause and sort out friend from foe. I realize that the uncertainty is part of the political nature of the story, but it left me unmoored. With only Baru to really rely on– and with her duplicitous nature already a factor in my calculations– I felt like I had no one to rely upon to guide me through the story. Everyone might be at risk of death in A Song of Ice and Fire, but I can at least trust Jon or Arya to stay true to themselves.
The combat was not the only thing Dickinson increased. The number of Points of View grew, too. In the first book, we are almost exclusively with Baru. In The Monster Baru Cormorant, we are given more than half a dozen new perspectives, including one that drops into First Person, as well as flashbacks that go back in time up to twenty-five years. It’s a lot to keep track of and demands an incredible amount of attention. If you enjoyed the political machinations and double talk in the formal dinner scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune, but wish it had been expanded to cover everything, including battles, then Dickinson has the books for you.
I appreciate the diversity of Dickinson’s books. The characters come from vastly different cultures. They have different skin colors, different clothing, and differing views on what makes a family. Gender roles are turned on their head, as well. In parts of the Masquerade, men wear the makeup and fashionable clothes and are expected to be passionate and emotional, while women are the cooly rational ones who can be counted on to lead troops and sail ships into battle. The warrior women are not dainty, nor are they ashamed of their broad shoulders and strong arms. Gay and lesbian characters play vital roles, and their sexuality is vital to their history and position in the empire and not simply a curious side note added in for #diversity. Dickinson takes full advantage of the fact that a fantastical world does not have to be bound by gender and cultural norms that we take for granted in most of our stories.
Where The Monster Baru Cormorant fell short for me was in the often chaotic sprawl of world building and characters. I realize that this could be a side effect of the trauma Baru endured in the first book, but it made for a scattershot read that was less gripping than its predecessor.
Will I read the third book, whenever it comes out? Yes, I probably will. If, as I suspect, the third book will tie up the chaotic elements of The Monster Baru Cormorant into a tightly-knit story that only feels chaotic at first glance, the conclusion will be every bit as fantastic as the first installment.
Thank you to NetGalley and MacMillian-Tor/Forge for providing me with a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.