Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up 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 will 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, join the Masquerade, and claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.
To test her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. 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.
It had to happen sooner or later, but I have finally come to review one of the most polarizing novels I have ever read. This is a difficult story to review not because of the writing style, characters, or the world itself but rather the way in which Seth Dickinson decides to tell Baru’s story with very slow pacing and the ultimate climax which seemed to come out of nowhere. This book is almost entirely political maneuvering with little to no action, at least on the soldier level, and nothing in terms of fantastical elements. I will say that the elements that Seth Dickinson does introduce are done extremely well, but I was expecting more from this story until the ending. This is the kind of novel that I would have loved as science fiction (in a modern/post modern society) but the story reads as a fantasy in a premodern society. Lets get into the details to see if this novel will work for you.
Baru Cormorant lives a simple life on beach town with her two fathers when she finds red sails on the horizon. The Empire of Masks is coming to conqueror Baru’s home and rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. Baru has her heart set on revenge but she must be patient in order to work her way up the ranks in the Empire of the Masquerade. She will learn the secrets of empire and 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 her final test of loyalty to the Masquerade, they will send her to the distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. No ruler sent from the Masquerade has every survived Aurdwynn but Baru is determined change the outlook. She must balance the ledgers, tax the dukes, break up well known alliances in order to achieve her goal. Baru eventually becomes fascinated with the powerful Duchess Tain Hu and becomes so entangled with her that she decides to join Aurdwynn in revolt against the empire in order to exact her revenge.
From every you just read, this seems like a story that can and should appeal to the vast majority of SFF readers who enjoy political slow-burns. Unfortunately, this is where most of the excitement ended for me until the ending where I am intrigued enough to pick up the sequel at some point. First off, the names in this novel are not the easiest to remember and it took me almost the entire first half of the novel before I got a good grasp on the characters aside from Baru. Next thing is everyone in this story wears a mask, which is part of the customs and culture of living in this empire. It could just be me but I couldn’t understand anyone’s motivation or desires during these conversations, but it does add to the suspense and mystery. The writing style is also not the easiest to digest along with chapter after chapter of repetitive meetings and very little happening. Finally, I want to discuss the ending, completely out of left field and I wasn’t expecting this to happen in the least. It felt like the author was going down one path and then all of a sudden he pulls a rabbit out of his hat and we have no choice but to switch gears. I felt that the pacing and construction of the story for the first eighty percent of the novel didn’t justify such a climax and it didn’t feel earned to me. With this all being said, I will be picking up the sequel just to see where this story is going.
Baru is a great character to follow even if I had a difficult time getting a read on her. She is smart, determined, and conniving but unbalanced with the propensity to become unwound. Baru feels like she has the weight of her country on her shoulders and one wrong step can mean her doom. She was one of the few bright spots I found reading this story and I very much hope this sequel can build upon her inner struggle. I had a hard time with this novel, some readers will absolutely enjoy this novel and everything that it has to offer. Just keep your friends close and your enemies closer.