Notes on The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015) by Seth Dickinson

There is a great peril in making a novel about something. That sounds a bit trite but I will illustrate this point with Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Dickinson’s novel has very obvious issues that it is wrestling with (as elaborated on in this essay):

Gender is biology. (In a feudal power game, women serve as prizes, not leaders.)
Race is destiny. (When the colonizers arrive, the poor simple colonized are overwhelmed.)
Queer relationships are doomed. (In a homophobic world, queer people suffer and die.)

These are important issues that need to be written about but how you write about them is as important. I liked the content of Dickinson’s book. I just didn’t like any of his aesthetic choices in terms of character, style or structure. Which basically means I didn’t like the book.

For example,

the first two chapters of the book are set up to quickly hit each of these notes, so that readers who don’t want to engage with them can bail out. The colonizers arrive, they quickly make an issue of policing sexuality, and they disappear father Salm.

This attempt at giving an opportunity for readers to “bail out” is entirely the wrong way to think about a book. No part of a book needs to be designed for people who do not want to read it. Because Dickinson does not think like this, people who do want to read the book (i.e. me) have to suffer two chapters of the author flinging signs that scream “BAD COLONIZERS” at us. In two chapters, Baru’s people are colonized. To describe it as rushed is an understatement.

The protagonist Baru Cormorant bears the burden of all three of Dickinson’s issues. She is a woman, she is a colonial subject, she is lesbian. If one person is going to be vehicle for all the themes of the book, then surely her character development will be the primary allegiance of the novel. But, no, Dickinson doesn’t do that. The primary allegiance of the novel is an exciting, thrilling plot about political intrigue and economics where Baru shows off how much of a genius she is. Baru being a woman, a colonial subject or a lesbian affects the storyline, sure, but not as much as her sheer intelligence does.

Dickinson’s intentions are, as usual, good. To him, the book “has to be a compelling story. If it isn’t, no one will read it.” I agree with Dickinson. Genre novels typically need strong plots. The trick is to make a strong plot that puts the character development at the centre. By making his plot disparate from his character, the book ends up delivering on only one. Baru and the issues end up getting second-degree treatment – half the time, we are just ‘told’ them, rather than shown them. The ills of colonialism, the issues, the character, they all become things for which there is no actual space to explore in any way other than a direct one.

And if we wanted a direct approach, we would’ve read an essay.