Thursday, 1 October 2015

Review - The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

THE TRAITOR is an epic geopolitical fantasy about one woman's mission to tear down an empire by learning how to rule it.

Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up from the sand of her home and see red sails on the horizon.

The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They'll conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She'll swallow her hate, prove her talent, and join the Masquerade. She will learn the secrets of empire. She’ll be exactly what they need. And she'll claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.

In a final test of her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. Aurdwynn kills everyone who tries to rule it. To survive, Baru will need to untangle this land’s intricate web of treachery - and conceal her attraction to the dangerously fascinating Duchess Tain Hu.

But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.

Reviewing this book presented a conundrum to me. On one hand it is an utterly absorbing tale that will literally sink its teeth into you and refuse to let go. On the other I still find myself struggling to actually come up with the words to describe just how much this book kicked me in the head and heart.

Tragic.. gripping.. savage.. heartbreaking.. immersive... all of the above? 

The Traitor is that sort of book. 

The Traitor tells the tale of Baru Cormorant, a young girl whose family, culture, and nation are swallowed up and destroyed by the Empire of the Masks. Biding her time for revenge, Baru proves her talent to the Empire and joins the Masquerade, hoping to climb the rungs of power high enough in order to set her people free. But a posting to the distant Aurdwynn will push Baru to her limits, and may just end her quest for her people's freedom before it has even started. 

I really don't know where to begin exactly when describing just how much I loved this book. I could wax lyrical about Dickinson's ability to suck me in like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit with his immersive world building that has shades of the British Empire and Imperial China. Or I could rave on about the gender issues and sociological themes that are explored (often brutally) throughout the book. But when it comes down to it The Traitor is about Baru, and her journey in a horrible and savage world. 

I adored the way Baru was depicted, from her mannerisms right down to her innermost thoughts. From very early in the book, when she decides that the only way to fight the Empire of Masks is from within, we know that her child-like innocence at the start will never be the same again. And her journey is incredibly brutal. And when I say brutal I don't mean blood spraying and limbs flying everywhere (although that sort of violence does happen), I mean a world where your sexuality, ethnicity, and culture are swallowed whole and spat out in disgust by an empire that holds all else in disdain. A world where you are told that your pain, loss, and hardship as you are assimilated and conquered are good for you and the Empire, and where your home will be destroyed, rebuilt, and renamed. A world where genocide, 're-education programs', and 'hygiene' standards (where your family units and sexual orientation must adhere to the Empire of the Masks rules) are enforced by fear, torture, and propaganda. 

And as Baru plots, weaves and manipulates events in Audwynn she loses more and more of herself to her ultimate endgame. The Traitor is a tragedy in essence, and Baru pays a cost no matter what. What ultimately makes Baru's journey so tragic though is as the book progresses she starts to lose all sense of her past and Taranoke. Her noble intentions to save her people at the beginning are drowned by the horrors (of her own making in many instances) of the world around her. And yet despite all of this I still found myself cheering for her and defending her actions as she (and we, the readers) sank lower and lower as the book progressed. And as Baru made her final decision in the book, a decision that broke my heart into pieces that I am still attempting to collect back together, it dawned on me exactly why Baru and this book moved me in such a earth-shattering way. 

She is the most human character I ever read. 

Bravo Dickinson. Bravo. 

5 out of 5 stars. 

A review copy was provided.  


  1. Been hearing mixed things about this one, so boy I am so very glad now to see a review that loved it to bits. It's good to see all the opinions :)

    ~Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

  2. So glad you loved it! I'll be reading it soon. The story sounds a little like Red Rising, which I loved:-D