Book Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

I’ve been trying to pull my thoughts together for weeks on this one because it just blew me away. Baru is a young girl when the colonizing empire shows up. She grows up through their increasing control.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel with such a blatant depiction of the horrors of colonialism. The horrors of Empire are typically sanitized—think of the pure white of Princess Leia’s dress as she fights as a rebel. But with Baru you see the children indoctrinated against their own parents, the plague that comes through after a previously unexposed population, the people who are killed for not complying to the new rules set down by the colonizers, the sexual abuse of the colonized people who have limited recourse for help. It’s hard and it’s brutal and Baru is brilliant in her navigation of it.

The title is a promise. I spent the whole book hoping she’d be betraying the empire, but it’s always in question. She plays a long game, always. She learns as she’s still a child that the empire is too big to overthrow with some grand gesture—like her parents plan, or the hero of some YA novel. She has to destroy it from the inside, but that means working from the inside.

And that’s the whole trick of the situation. Is she working for the Empire here because she’ll turn against them later? Or has she lost hope of ever overthrowing them? Is she helping these people due to her conscious, or so she can tear them down that much harder later?

Will it even matter if she saves her people in the end after all the other nations she destroys in her path?

I’m definitely hooked. This could very well be a villain origin story, but I’m totally into it. There’s a line at one point that’s something like “better a reluctant traitor than an unfeeling sociopath” when she refuses to kill someone, and the very fact that she has that thought tells me she made that calculation. She knows exactly how she wants to be perceived and acts accordingly. The question is not, is she a traitor, but rather, who is she betraying this time?

On the less twisty side of things, Baru is definitely lesbian. She was raised by her two dads and her mom in what appears to be a closed triad, until one of her fathers was killed for being queer. Her whole motivation arises from that. There are definitely queer characters who are killed, both for being queer and for other reasons, so if you’re looking for something that avoids that, look elsewhere.

I’m definitely going to check out the sequel.

 

Recommended for: fans of dark fantasy, people who want queer relationships outside of romance, anyone interested in anti-colonialist fiction, fans of anti-heroes and villain protagonists, fans of female villains and anti-heroes, fans of Sapphic characters

 

Mind the trigger warnings:

Attempted child sexual assault, threats of sexual violence, eugenics, child brainwashing, queer slurs, colorism, seriously so much eugenics