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review: the traitor baru cormorant by seth dickinson

Updated: Feb 8

How do you talk about a book that has completely obliterated your capacity for language?


For days after I finished reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I searched in some cobwebbed closet of my memory for words that might convey the acuity of my feeling, groping in the dark for any pieces of disused language that might help me make sense of my reading experience—but my arms, each time, closed on nothing.



I could have cried with my frustration. Instead, I just quietly shelved The Traitor Baru Cormorant under “to-review” and tried disappearing into other books. I did not want to allow any thoughts of Baru, Tain Hu, and the whole ugly tangle of their story to enter my mind—but that story occupied the space of an itch there, the burned edge of something unfinished. I would be mid-meal, fork halfway to my mouth, and some mysterious tug at the center of my chest—like a rope gone taut—would stir me from stillness and send me back to the pages of this book. I can’t tell you how long I would just sit there, trailing my fingers under the passages I’d underlined and the places in the margins where I’d scribbled my thoughts.


The questions I carried:

god, it’s always that feeling of insolvable discontinuity as a person, isn’t it? you are always in two places, home in neither


So much of survival is keeping your teeth gritted around the shape of your name as you hide the scream of rage at the base of your throat behind a perfectly fitted mask of conformity


I can't think the word "conformity" without seeing "complicity"


but how can you make sure you belong to empire and still belong to yourself? when the mask is lifted, what is going to be left of her, for salvage?


the thing that fucks me up so thoroughly is that very few things about this can be completely crystallized into ‘right/wrong’, ‘evil/virtue’—but how do you even begin to account for the rest of it? what about the people who are grist in the gears of that merciless machine making hideous decisions, committing hideous injustices, because they’re just trying not to be devoured?


what do you do when empire is pressed like a cloth over your mouth, slowly suffocating you, and freedom is offered at a price you cannot give without losing your humanity—when the price it demands is your humanity?


survival but only in its darkest rudiment—that’s one of the obscenities of empire


but she can never undo empire from her blood—it has already stained her indelibly


some things are not worth being within”—I need to remember this


and on several pages, a line from A Memory Called Empire which has lived in my head for so long and still takes up so much space: “nothing empire touches remains itself.”

 

I think I was simply, deplorably unprepared for the vividly disconcerting gravity of this novel. I knew it would be intense, but incorrectly anticipated the sheer force of it. I didn’t expect it to gut me so thoroughly of words, and to get into me in ways that very few things ever have, and I think it’s so hard to talk about it, even now, because it’s too close to the skin. I know, objectively, that if I were to try hard enough I can lay hands on some words to describe the author’s mastery of plot, the twisting loops of bright narrative threads that he weaves into a treacherous tapestry, the mesmerizing complexity of the characters, the heart-stopping clarity of the prose, the finely drawn emotional and thematic sketches. But the words, I know, will fall inevitably short. They will be a pale phantom of the inarticulate enormity of what this book did to me—and more unforgivably, perhaps, the words would be a way to circumvent the harder, truer thing.


Reading books about empire and colonialism and what it means to be seized in those sharpened teeth—the seduction and horror and inexorability of it—have a way of cutting me open. I cannot read them without breaking open and pouring deeply personal pain on the table, like a spilled glass of wine.


I wonder if it’s a matter of resonance—when the story becomes an echoing place into which you can cast a stone and hear reverberations of your own historical grief. Feel the whole meaning of your life in that forlorn echo. But I’m also thinking words like reflection and refocusing. When the story asks—forces—you to consider your own face in its mirror, to confront yourself in the depths of its darkness. And here, a shimmer of sorts might occur: the sudden terrible thought that you’ve missed some fundamental fragment of your reflection, or some new fragment has revealed itself when you were not looking. I think also: unlocking, transformation—when a story continues inside of you long after you’ve turned the last page, and in immeasurable increments, begins to shift something in you, unsealing some previously hidden dimension, until it changes you so completely.


Maybe I'm still circumventing the harder, truer thing.


Whatever strange alchemy these books seem to possess—The Traitor Baru Cormorant has now gone into my brain, and into my heart, burrowing so deep; I suspect I might never peel it off me.

 

Have you read The Traitor Baru Cormorant yet? If yes, what did you think of it?


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