The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth J Dickinson

This is a review of book #2 in the Masquerade Series, so there’s spoilers for the first book. If you’re thinking of getting into the series, check out my review of book #1, The Traitor Baru Cormorant! I received an ARC of this book from the publishing company Tor in exchange for a fair and honest review.

The Monster Baru Cormorant was one of my most anticipated sequels and *happy sigh* it was fucking brilliant.

The sequel picks up exactly where the first book finished, giving us another glimpse at Baru and Tain Hu’s last moments together. Now Baru has ascended to a new level of power, and has been entrusted with a correspondingly even more difficult task. She is to help direct the looming conflict between the Masquerade Empire and the sprawling Oriati Mbo. To do so, she and several other agents of the Empire are sent on an expedition to learn the secrets that have kept the Oriati happy and prosperous for a thousand years. Of course, Baru has her own plans for the Empire… and must deal with the fallout from her previous manipulations.

In a word, this book is bigger. We now get multiple POVs: mostly Baru yes, but also people who hate her or are unsure of her. There’s another storyline woven in as flashback interludes, following the Oriati Federal Prince Tau-indi as they navigate the lead-up to the previous war between the Masquerade and the Oriati Mbo. In general, we see more of the world, as Baru and the other characters travel around (primarily the outskirts of) the Masquerade Empire, and we learn more of the world’s history and cultures.

This leads to the questions asked being bigger too. Traitor explores what one person might, or could, or must do to overthrow an empire, and whether that cost is worth it. Monster continues the same line of questioning with: “Okay, but say you do overthrow the empire… have you thought about what then?” Burning it all down is a fun goal, but there’s no way to stuff globalisation back in the box. Presuming the goal is not merely blind rage and destruction of all civilisation (and of course with Baru, that’s a big presumption)… what then?

The increasing scope means the book is packed very dense. Sequels are always a little complicated; while Traitor could function as a stand-alone, Monster is very clearly setting up the dominoes for later. Much of the book consists of worldbuilding, introducing us (and Baru herself!) to territories and factions outside Taranoke and Aurdwynn. There’s a lot of information to keep track of: the Masquerade colonies’ culture before colonisation; the Masquerade colonies’ culture after; the various political factions within the Masquerade (most importantly the navy); past, fallen civilisations such as the Tu Maia and the Jellyfish Eaters; the Oriati federations’ history and numerous cultures; other world players, such as the Stakhieczi’s Necessary King… It feels overwhelming sometimes.

On the other hand, I would happily read a whole “non-fiction” history book about Baru’s world. (And yes, among my co-bloggers I’m known for having a virulent hatred of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding, so… I guess this is the greatest compliment I could offer a fantasy book.) I think this is because the peoples in Baru’s world are clearly influenced by non-European cultures, e.g. the Oriati having three genders or the Segu having a matriarchy, which makes everything feel fresh and intriguing. I really enjoyed having to puzzle through what is actually true and what’s propaganda against the various cultures as well. As with the first book, Dickinson refuses to make any culture wholly good or bad, e.g. terrifying eugenics is lauded inside the Masquerade, infanticide is common outside it. The scope also makes the world feel that much more convincing and similar to ours, where a project like “dismantle colonialism” could not be completed by snapping one’s fingers. And while I didn’t cry at Monster like I did at Traitor, it did fill me with a horrible existential dread and despair at the state of our own world so, y’know, points to the book.

Of course, Baru remains the captivating, complex centre of it all. To put it politely, she is not unaffected by the events of book one. To put it less politely… she’s a fucking mess. This is maybe a bit disappointing when compared to Traitor: she’s less in command, and she doesn’t really have the chance to show off her abilities like she did in Aurdwynn. On the other hand, it humanises her in an important way. The book also starts probing more harshly into where Baru ends and where the Empire, which has been molding her since a young age, begins. To her distress, Baru herself isn’t sure. (By the way, basically none of the characters trust Baru now, even when she’s actually telling the truth, and it’s kind of darkly hilarious.)

The other characters are interesting too. Some old faces reappear and get their own POV, such as Aminata, Baru’s sailor friend. She’s bitter at her new job and wonders what the hell all these rumours about her old friend Baru are about. Tain Hu remains an overwhelmingly strong presence in the book as well, which I really appreciated. Of the new characters, the most intriguing is Tau-indi, who is our window into the culture of the Oriati. The Oriati people believe in ‘trim’, the art of connectedness, and that relationships with others have a material effect on the world. (The beauty of this being a fantasy book is, of course, that the reader has no idea for sure if this is a belief system or simple fact.) Tau’s unrelentingly, bluntly human-oriented approach makes a fun contrast to Baru’s cold logic.

Finally, in regard to the writing, I’m not sure what to say that hasn’t been said for book one already. It remains immaculate. Dickinson has a way of making the large feel large, of making huge declarations seem just as bone-chillingly powerful as they are meant to be. I’m also impressed by how well the fantasy words flow off the tongue, both the names (Xate Yawa, the Llosydane Islands, the Cancrioth) and little bits of the old tongues (ayamma, ayamma, a ut li-en). Thankfully, Dickinson also inserts a decent amount of little humorous and human moments into the book, which keeps it from being an exercise in utter bleakness. Shout out especially to the cryptarch Apparitor, who’s Done With Everyone’s Shit.

Ultimately, I think Monster is a sequel that doesn’t go in the direction most people would expect. It diminishes the importance of Baru, slows down the pacing, and introduces a heap of new difficulties. One particular crucial plotline/worldbuilding aspect seems to come out of the blue (well, it doesn’t if you read Traitor very, very carefully). At the same time, I found this direction fascinating and exciting. I absolutely loved The Monster Baru Cormorant, and I can’t wait to see where book 3 takes us.

I recommend this book for:

  • Fans of political fantasy
  • Fans of complex worldbuilding
  • People tired of the “standard Western European fantasy setting”
  • People who like anti-hero main characters
  • Fans of fantasy books with little to no magic
  • Particularly fans of fantasy books where you’re not sure if there’s little or no magic
  • People looking for LGBT protagonists
  • People who’ve had enough of 2018 and are ready to start planning the World Revolution, but would like to see all the possible issues with said Revolution explored before they start sharpening the guillotine
  • People who loved The Traitor Baru Cormorant! What are you waiting for, let’s go!
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