You are probably going to hate this book. Seth Dickinson knows this and gives you fair warning at the outset. "This is the truth. You will know because it hurts." And even then, you aren't prepared. Over the course of 400 tight and tense pages, the book lives up to its promise. Like its namesake, The Traitor Baru Cormorant lures you in, puts you at your ease, wins your confidence, and then destroys you. Not wasting time with the often superficial cynicism towards humanity's innate corrupt nature that has come to define "grimdark" fantasy (especially as bloody nihilism has become grimdark's actual selling point, rather than a literary device designed honestly to inspire thought and self-reflection on the part of the reader), Dickinson takes us right into the heart of darkness and gives us a ringside seat to the making of a monster.
Expanding upon a 2011 short story published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (which you absolutely should not read prior to the novel, because massive spoilers), Dickinson employs some familiar tropes of fantasy — the imperialist conquerors, the rebel determined to win at all costs — while utterly ignoring others. There are no creatures of myth, no magic use, nothing apparently paranormal at all in this world. Everything is steered in directions you never quite expect, and the result is distinctive enough to be unlike most other books of its kind you may have read.
Our heroine is Baru Cormorant. We first meet her as a young girl living in the coastal idyll of her fishing village, Taranoke. As she grows up, she witnesses her people and her whole way of life slowly conquered, not by force of arms, but economics. The Empire of Masks, over a period of a few short years, makes itself an indispensable trading partner to Taranoke, imposes its fiat currency, and simply takes over. Then it begins imposing its rule and ideas of social order upon the culture. Among these include a program of what amounts to eugenics, through selective breeding arrangements, controlled disease outbreaks, and unforgiving penalties for homosexuality.
As a child, Baru is swept into a Masque school where she is indoctrinated into the Empire's self-justifying philosophy, Incrasticism. She excels as a student and appears to be transforming into an obedient imperial ward. But she is brought back to her roots at the possibility that the Empire may have had one of her fathers, serving as a conscripted soldier, executed. Because in Taranoke, sexuality had always been a fluid thing, and it was the norm to have polyamorous marriages with multiple parents raising children. It's an unconscionable sin and capital crime to be a "sodomite" or "tribadist," say their new masters.
Baru swears to avenge her family and free her people by rising high enough in the Empire's hierarchy to bring it down from within. Even to think such a crazy thing reflects, perhaps, on the passion, audacity, and total lack of realism that comes from being young and idealistic. But passionate idealists do change the world, after all, and Baru has the brilliance to at least try matching her deeds to her words. After acing her exams, she is disappointed to find herself posted, not to the Empire's capital of Falcrest, but the remote northern province of Aurdwynn to serve as Imperial Accountant. She soon realizes this posting is a test for her to show her true quality. Aurdwynn is a perpetually ticking time bomb of incipient rebellion. And if she can expose and thwart those among the land's many bickering dukes and duchesses who are most likely to rebel outright (through the inspired method of auditing everyone's books), Baru may at last earn the trust of Falcrest and be in a position, at last, to carry out her own plans. If, that is, she can avoid being assassinated as were her two predecessors.
Events move quickly. And in the way of all things, people change, plans change, friends become enemies and vice versa. To reveal much more at this point would simply be wrong. What is there that won't spoil the experience? I could speak of the book's attention to racial and sexual diversity, the way in which Baru (who's non-white) lives in terror that her own sexuality might be exposed. I could speak of the masterstroke in using economics and commerce as a key factor in the plot. I could speak of the supporting characters who enter Baru's life: her assistant Muire Lo, and the rebel duchess Tain Hu chief among them in reader's hearts and minds. Among all of Aurdwynn's players, they'll be the ones to whom Baru allows herself the closest human connection, with all the joy and agony such connections bring.
But there is ever so much more to Baru, as torn and conflicted a protagonist as fantasy has ever seen. She's brilliant, a hero, a pure Machiavellian boss, and also a villain, a tyrant, the devil in the flesh. You'll cheer on her victories and recoil from her crimes. In an empire where masks are literally worn as symbols of power, what exactly lies beneath hers? Can she be the person she's committed herself to be? Is there any realistic hope of going home again, restoring her people to their old ways? What exactly will she have to become if she's really intent upon working the long con like this? Can she go as far as necessary, whatever the cost?
The ending — that devastating, brilliant, horrible ending. I can look back, see the subtle tipoffs here and there. But that doesn't diminish its effect. If anything, the opposite. I do know this: as painful as it is, it is the ending that had to happen.
Traitor juggles a lot of pins. It drops a few here and there, as any debut novel will, but recovers. What marks it as a great work, let alone a great debut, has less to do with matters of technique — though Dickinson's hand is almost miraculously assured through even its slowest stretches — than sheer impact. Bloodshed is one thing, but genuine anguish is another. It's the way this story gets under your skin and hits you where it really counts that puts it in a class by itself. If you end up hating it, it will be because it commits its treason too well. You loved it so much, and it broke your heart.