Note from April 2020: Since publishing this review and sitting with the ending, I have warmed considerably to both this book and this series and become very sympathetic to the author. I'm uploading this initial reaction for the sake of posterity. It contains extensive plot spoilers, so beware!
Well, I finished the book. That ending, huh.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned, in quite explicit terms, by @translesbiantheo and @blasphemefatale before i read it. This one is heavy.
I understand the thematic purpose, but in some ways it feels not so different in result, if not intent, from the end of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law. Since writing the review, I've confirmed the author is neither straight nor cis, though I'm not sure what name they now use, but at the time they went by Seth Dickinson. In any case it’s about the narrative of ‘doomed gay romance’ - but I’m still undecided if the handling of it was successful.
At the beginning of the book, there is ‘a promise’: ‘This is the truth. You will know because it hurts’. I can say unequivocally that it does not pull its punches on that promise.
The lesbian’s qualm aside (look this is extremely funny if you’ve read the book ok), this book brings a ton to talk about.
I don’t know if i have it in me to finish the Gelderloos state-formation book before I write about this. Despite my initial impression, I think the parallels between Baru Cormorant and Mission Child are slimmer than I first thought. Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire seems much more apt as a comparison on almost every level. In part, it is that both books seem to suffer a similar limitation.
The common point is that, while both are acutely sensitive to the cruelties of empire, eager to show atrocities of war… the world of empire they portray is one that ultimately hinges on things that are surprisingly personal, full of brilliant generals and nigh omnipotent (but evil) technocrats and spies, who expertly play games of intrigue against each other while everyone else awaits whichever sorry fate they will be assigned. The unnamed masses - soldiers, peasants, etc. - are not just tools to be used for the empire, but also for the protagonist who attempts to subvert it.
In these stories, it seems like ultimately there is someone - a single someone, or a cabal of someones - behind the “machinery of empire”, a group who personally will it to take the form that it does, until someone brilliant enough comes along to impose some new modes and orders (thanks for that phrase, Machiavelli!). I think there are compelling reasons for that choice: to write about abstract systems, in the limited space of a novel especially, we must personalise and embody them. But also I think it limits its metaphorical applicability a little. Baru Cormorant, at least, goes less far than Lee in that direction: its eyes are focused, more than anything, on the logic of empire, the “methods of rule”. Baru often underestimates whether people can be used as tools. Still, it shares a lot with Machineries.
Baru Cormorant is a lot more grounded than Lee’s work; its version of the “brilliant lesbian savant who makes herself indispensable to the empire in order to ultimately destroy it” mostly gets her victories through application of monetary policy, logistics and materialism, rather than rewriting the laws of reality with carefully mathematically coordinated ritual sacrifices.
This consistent focus on economics is, I think, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Among other authors, I can only think of Daniel Abraham, who also tried to write ‘economic fantasy’ with a lot of of his stories: The Cambist and Lord Iron, The Long Price, and that much less good one he wrote that has a dozen fantasy races and equally many sequels and has one prodigious child explaining basic economics to everyone (note from 2020: apparently, The Dagger and the Coin series).
In all of these stories, accountants and merchants are the real wizards. Baru sniffs out a rebels through a clever accounting trick, or makes a small change in monetary policy and breaks the rebellion by bankrupting the nobility, causing untold other consequences. Even when things become more military, Seth Dickinson does an excellent job of making logistics, lines of supply, starvation and other things that Guy Debord thinks are important into the compelling, fascinating part of war. In the course of the book, there’s one big battle, and it does have a few clever ruses, but it’s mostly about how tired the horses are.
Another way it differs from Ninefox etc is that it’s much more of a tragedy, and a particularly tragic one at that. The point of this one, as recgonised explicitly by a number of characters, seems to be that Baru becomes the image of what she set out to oppose; the empire’s mask eats her up, infects her thinking, so that she can hardly not do its will. In her hunger for power to subvert the empire’s hold on her homeland, she replicates all the atrocities that motivated her to resist in the first place and then some. But ultimately it’s all for a grander purpose, she tells herself again and again: she’ll put an end to anyone doing the things she’s doing.
It’s easy to then think: perhaps they’re all planning that.
As an exploration of complicity and attempts toward resistance, I think it is more depressingly plausible than, say, Imperial Radch. In those books, once Breq has set out to resist Anaander Mianaai’s rule, she more or less just does so, and largely gets rewarded for her efforts: a defiant suicidal gesture ends up instead inciting a civil war; the genocides she committed happened largely offscreen, while her efforts to put right the longstanding injustices that result all happen on screen. Anaander tries to use her to consolidate her faction of the Radch’s hold, but there is never any question that Breq will carry out her will, and sure enough, Breq manages to create a secessionist state and ensure its defence through some clever space lawyering with the aliens.
By contrast, this book is almost entirely Baru making compromises and sacrifices. As Amal El-Mohtar writes,
The brutality of this book reshapes the landscape of what we call brutal. It’s subtle and pervasive, conditioned responses instead of breaking bones. It’s the brutality of emergent imperialism, of telling you the pain’s for your own good, of erasing your memories and selfhood by renaming your home. It’s a brutality, ultimately, of sunk costs: Baru sinks more and more of herself in payment for her ultimate goal of helping Taranoke, but her sacrifices grow sharper and more acute even as her notions of helping – and even of Taranoke as a place – grow vaguer and more diffuse.
It’s hard to see where the sequel can go, since the trick Baru plays on Aurdwynn on behalf of the empire is also played on the reader. We are persuaded to sympathise with the rebellion (not hard, given the homophobic, eugenic obsessions of the empire, and the generally affable and entertaining rebel dukes), to be relieved when Baru wins victories, enjoy the characters of its leaders, to be delighted when Baru finally comes out of the closet and makes good on the promise of the four hundred page slow burn enemies to lovers romance… and then have it snatched away, told that it was all part of a grand scheme to cement power, to (in a recurring metaphor) dangle the possibility of escape and then have it proven that the empire were always in control after all. Which, sure, is very horrifying - but it also says to the reader, don’t get invested next time around.
So if the second book, then, promises to see what all this sacrifice was for. but at this point it’s hard to imagine it’s for anything. Baru is already so far gone, that whatever she does against the empire it’s hard to imagine it creating something that is not just another version of the empire.
I still get the impression that the author is some manner of anarchist. Actually I can just look this up: they have written a post about their own reading of his book and its intended themes, and yeah, they’re definitely some kind of anarchist. It seems like my reading of the book just outlined is not at all unintentional:
This conditioning operates on the reader too.What happens at the end of the book? Is Baru triumphant, or defeated? Has she subverted the whole Masquerade machine by taking over their stories, or in enacting them, has she become compliant?
That’s up to you to decide.
But remember the Masquerade’s trick with the prisoners. Allow them to escape, and then crush their hope just when they’ve embraced freedom. Repeat. Repeat. Until the prisoner rejects escape even when it’s offered. This is the Masquerade’s design on Baru, and it is also what the Masquerade hopes to do to the reader: see this story? See it happen again and again? It’s inside you now. It’s part of you. We have literally carved it into your brain. There is no hope to ever be free of it.
I said earlier that this book imagines that the Empire, which is otherwise so much like the British Empire with a bit of Nazi Germany, is ruled by a very small group of people: a cabal who go by names like Apparitor, Hesychast and Renascent, whose goal is to achieve ‘total causal closure’ in the designs of their empire: to make rebellion outright unthinkable, to turn every person alive into an obedient device of the Empire. This is probably the book’s least historical device, since otherwise it is resolutely non-magical: the Empire of the Mask, or Masquerade to its enemies, is a kind of idealisation of what an empire is. A Platonic ideal of an empire.
One device I quite like is the use of masks. As the name implies, the Empire of the Mask has its civil servants wear masks while on duty, indicating that their personal identity isn’t so important as the role they are performing. It’s heavily reminiscent of the ‘character-masks’ that Marx invokes in Capital, the particular roles in the process of circulation. It’s on the nose, but I think it’s a very effective metaphor for how we execute the logic of social institutions.
The Empire of the Mask is described as having certain scientific advantages, chiefly in hygiene and engineering; certain weaponry such as hwachas and a kind of incendiary naval weapon; and above all an extremely strong grasp of capitalist economics, and a set of methods for integrating a province into a capitalist economy and making them dependent on the Empire’s fiat money. At the very beginning of the book, an astute child Baru recognises how the Empire uses money as a means of conquest - this is what brings her to the attention of the cabal member who takes her on as a protégée.
On top of this, it has a very strict fanatical ideology of eugenics and homophobia called Incrasticism, which plays a similar role to what Christianity and scientism did for the British in providing a (flimsy) justification for conquest, and the means to ‘understand’ and define the things it claimed. This is also historical: although it didn’t bind it all up in an ideology with a name, the British Empire had an enormous practice of scientific racism, taxonomy, classification etc., and also used European gender systems as one of its techniques to impose colonial rule, looking at Indigenous systems of gender with a kind of horrified anthropological fascination.
The main way that the Empire of the Mask differs from the British Empire is, I guess, that, as least as far as the real leaders go, it’s honest about its purposes. The ruling cabal (who don’t seem to have a formal title, but at one point refer to themselves as the “steering committee”) has an anarchist’s understanding of how empires extend their power, how everything from its money to its homophobia is part of that system of control, its means of breaking the will of each of its subjects until disobedience is inconceivable… and fully approves of it: “order is preferable to disorder”. They would read Foucault and take notes on how to make more things into prisons.
Speaking of prisons, although for the most part we don’t see the worst of the Masquerade’s punitive regime, we do get one visit to the ‘cold cellar’. The Masquerade went a lot further on the line from corporal punishment executed by the sovereign to prisons as a means of control and ‘rehabilitation’: its punishments are all focused on A Clockwork Orange-style conditioning, using drugs to build positive associations with the desired stimulus (a woman’s husband, the empire itself) and negative associations with others (other men, hints of rebellion). It uses many tactics which resemble a particularly brutal modern police force, such as spraying protestors with acid in order that their burns will identify them later.
I guess in many ways, although it’s obviously drawing heavily from history, the ‘purity’ of the Masquerade’s means of control better resemble Orwell’s fantastically implausible Ingsoc than less ideologically coherent, more internally divided empires of reality. For example, the Soviet state, for all its brutality shown in events like the Great Purge and collectivisations, wasn’t some sort of artfully honed ideological mechanism armed with the forbidden secrets of absolute rule, but full of conflicting factions and cliques, shaped by all kinds of groups and classes and economic pressures pushing in different directions. “Team-Stalin” might have eventually established nigh absolute authority, but they weren’t wizards able to bring about whatever political change they willed with a subtle push here and there.
Perhaps this presentation in part has to do with Baru’s fascination with the Empire’s power - she is desperate to know why her island nation were so easily conquered, imagining that if she is ruthless enough to make it into the centre of the Empire, she can learn the real ‘secrets of rule’ and finally know how to beat them. But if this is her perception, it is also a perception of the ‘steering committee’ - and we are given no real reason to doubt their assessment (except when they start going on about the eugenic potential of different races, which we’re clearly meant to read as bullshit self-delusion). When Baru writes of ‘total causal closure’ in a letter to the others at the end of the book, it’s chilling rather than laughable. (This is perhaps despite the fact that Baru’s repeated downfall is her failure to see other people as equal players rather than tools to be manipulated.)
About half way through the story, we meet the Clarified: spies who have been subjected to particularly thorough conditioning, making them absolutely dependent on following orders of agents of the Empire and executing the will of the Throne. I don’t know of any historical basis for this - frankly, it seems like it would be very unlikely to work as intended in real life, and the kinds experiments in ‘conditioning’ were much more phenomena of the 20th century than the early modern world of the rest of the book. If there is anywhere the book is particularly more fantasy than ‘history but remixed’, it’s here.
OK, but we’re here to talk about homophobia, aren’t we?
So let’s get on to the really tricky part: the doomed lesbian romance. To briefly summarise: Baru spends most of the book at severe danger of reveal as a ‘tribadist’, one of the most heinous crimes in the Empire’s eyes (alongside ‘sodomy’), punished by ‘the knife’ (i.e. genital mutilation). We’re reminded often what the empire does: “sodomites get hot iron; tribadists, the knife”. Although it never portrays these graphically on screen, the book quickly (apparently a deliberate choice, a kind of ‘this book is gonna go there so put it down now if you can’t deal’ warning) shows us that this is a story in which horrendous violence is inflicted on gay people, with the offscreen execution of Baru’s dad Salm.
Despite her deep deep repression, over the arc of her orchestrated rebellion, Baru falls privately in love with another woman, the rebel duchess Tain Hu. And the author certainly knows how to write a character who’s attractive to lesbians. I wasn’t kidding when I called this a slow burn enemies to lovers romance as much as anything: there is so fucking much sexual tension in every scene with these two. Baru can’t admit it to herself for nearly the entire first person book, but you don’t have to be some kind of fandom meta wizard to tell from pretty much the very first scene Tain Hu is introduced.
Ultimately, when the rebellion ‘wins’ at a decisive battle, which includes some pretty theatrical bits such as Tain Hu duelling the enemy leader and a moment of ‘did she survive?’, the book comes through: Baru turns down all the dukes who want to marry her, and declares that she’s gonna marry Tain Hu. They get one night together; then Baru tries to save Tain Hu while she lets the empire assassinate all the other leaders.
In the book’s final scenes, we learn the empire captured Tain Hu, and as a final test before they induct Baru into the secret cabal, they order her to execute Tain Hu. In fact, they expect Baru to waver, at which point they can retain Tain Hu as leverage over Baru. But prior to the execution, in a final conversation, Tain Hu instead asks Baru to insist on killing her, and Baru does so, watching as she’s executed in an especially grisly way and denying the empire their hold.
Let’s go through the comparison with a particularly vindictive case of dead lesbians, the one in The First Law. In The First Law, there is a minor lesbian couple, neither of whom are POV characters. They are ultimately condemned to marital rape at the hands of one of our protagonists, by the hand of the arch-manipulator who turns out to be behind it all. Yes, it’s all very grimdark, and if you’re, say, deep in the closet and a bit of an edgelord (a teenaged warhammer 40k fan, perhaps…) you might think it’s very clever. But to a lesbian reader, it comes off as just, a particularly cruel attack in ways I probably don’t need to describe: her are the only lesbians in the book, now watch them condemned to some of the worst fates of anyone, because fuck you that’s why.
Abercrombie later said on his blog that he deeply regrets that choice (after Benjanun Sriduangkaew targeted him on Requires Hate, if anyone remembers that whole ugly episode of science fiction fandom history). I recall he was trying to like, not do such a bad job of writing women in later books. But I stopped reading him a while ago.
By contrast, it’s somewhat assuring that, in their own words, the author also apparently had “crises of faith” over this choice of narrative - they didn’t just decide to fuck with me lightly, out of a desire to shock. Let’s have a look at what they intended, in their own words, written in 2016 before they finished the sequel:
The Masquerade’s homophobia stems from their concern with competitive fertility, social hygiene, and racial purity. They see ‘incorrect’ family structures as a threat to the long-term stability of civilizations. Their greatest weapon is fear: the ability to convince people like Baru that any non-heteronormative relationship will only lead to misery.
The simplest defiance, then, is to be happy — to do what so many have done so well, in reality and in art, and imagine a space where happiness is possible and unchallenged. But Baru gets hit early and hard by the disappearance of her father Salm (an act that she never explicitly thinks of as an intentional maneuver by her patron, Farrier: but the possibility exists). And as she sets out on a mission to prevent any future deaths of fathers, she’s maneuvered into re-enacting that cycle of tragedy. At Haraerod she massacres a Ducal family that closely resembles her own.
Tain Hu, meanwhile, carries on a happy life in Aurdwynn with many lovers and friends, in spite of Masquerade surveillance and the distemper of her neighbors. (Named lovers and/or friends in the story include Ulyu Xe and Ake Sentiamut, although Baru tries not to notice these relationships for fear of losing her own discipline.) Again and again Tain Hu tries to crack Baru’s self-control and help her realize that happiness is possible now, here. There’s no reason they couldn’t have been together for the length of the rebellion except that Baru thinks it’s tactically inadvisable: and in disciplining herself for tactical effect, Baru closes herself to the possibility of escaping the Masquerade narrative.
When Baru’s treason becomes clear, Tain Hu responds by taking up the weapons Baru taught her — manipulating the final act of the book so that she’s selected as a hostage for Baru, brought to Baru, and left in Baru’s power. We might even believe that Tain Hu turned herself over to Apparitor to be captured. Only at Baru’s side can she discharge her vows to serve both Aurdwynn and Baru to her death, by extracting a promise from Baru to save Aurdwynn and then tearing away the hostage that would constrain her.
And only here can she force Baru to acknowledge that her own personal relationships are vital and real. Not tactical performance.
At the end of the book, Baru is forced to re-enact her own father’s disappearance, the very act that signaled the beginning of Masquerade control, upon Tain Hu. Yet she alters this performance into a gambit to permanently break Masquerade control. She has the option to live with Tain Hu, but under Masquerade terms. But Tain Hu will not live on anyone else’s terms. She defies complicity.
While not explicitly an act of homophobia in the story’s world (since Tain Hu is a political prisoner and a rebel, and she’d be Baru’s hostage even if she were man) this is a subtextual return to the book’s question: can you subvert a story from the inside?
Neither woman is broken by the finale. They part with a strange kind of fondness and trust, each charged with hope. I may betray a little authorial bias with this observation. But my reading’s no more important than yours.
So: yes, the lesbian has to murder her partner, in a deliberate mirror of the homophobic murder that motivated her in the first place. But, the difference being, says the author, her partner insists on choosing that fate, as a deliberate act of defiance - which is to say that, faced with the Hobson’s choice of dying or living as a hostage to force Baru into compliance, she chose death.
It’s certainly more dignified than shouting recriminations, I guess, certainly a more respectful end than the lesbians in Abercrombie’s book. Of course, it’s far more of a gut punch because Tain Hu is certainly not a minor character, but probably the second most significant after Baru herself. It’s not just Baru who loves her by the end of the book, not just Baru who has to watch her die.
At the same time, on more abstract level, it is hard to see how this narrative does not fully confirm the Masquerade’s belief that “any non-heteronormative relationship will only lead to misery”. That Baru is a lesbian gives them power over her; her grand plan requires her to shed that capacity to love other women in the most brutal, traumatising way imaginable.
I’ve given lots of reasons why I might condemn the book for this, so I should say a few about why I think there’s something to it.
Partly it is that, I am no longer all that interested in stories where the main thrust is, ‘they’re lesbians and they get together, happily ever after’ - I want characters and relationships which are complex and not idyllic, the way the hets get to have all kinds of complex relationships. This story is a story about self-delusion and internalisation of narratives of oppression, and of course homophobia is one of the most brutal of these narratives. And Baru’s internalised homophobia is subtle: as Dickinson says, it’s not that she truly believes she is evil for ‘wanting to fuck women’, but that it’s impossible, it will only bring her misery.
Then again, I don’t need to be told that being in the closet sucks. There might be some sort of Hegelian recognition available in seeing one’s experiences reflected in fiction, but ultimately, I would like an answer: even in a miserable, hostile world like this one, it is better to live as a lesbian (& a trans woman, etc.) than to forever quash that.
Another, better defense might be: the ‘standard’ narrative of lesbian suffering is tragedy porn. They get together, and one of them dies, and how beautiful these miserable creatures are. How tragic, that they are doomed to this. Their agency - their desire to live together - is forever impossible.
Baru Cormorant is certainly not that. Both Baru and Tain Hu are, despite and even because of their self-deceptions and flaws, major drivers of the plot, always acting on their own terms. Baru is obviously the protagonist, and the whole plot is driven by her ambitions and self-delusions more so even than the designs of the empire. And Tain Hu will not, as Dickinson says up there, live on anyone else’s terms, come what may. She already refused the advances of dukes, damning herself to (very relative) poverty, and even the big old tragedy at the end is driven by her choice to give herself up to the Masquerade rather than be sent away by Baru. Most of Tain Hu’s decisions lead her to suffer more than if she acquiesced to power, but she is never shown to regret them.
At the same time… it didn’t have to end as it did, did it? Perhaps it would be an ‘easier’, less challenging, less literary ending, if Baru had turned away from her self-destructive course and sought a different way to liberate Taranoke. But it would have been an ending that seems less targeted at me, a lesbian. (Note from 2020: I now see this ending in a different light, in part due to knowing more about the author. I think there’s something very personal about this ending, something which must have been terrifying to confront in a published science fiction novel. This also comes in part from seeing how it plays out in the sequel.)
There is a bit in this book where hwachas (early firearms, which fire large clusters of arrows as an anti-infantry volley) are used against Baru’s army. The book points out that it is the poor - the ones who do not have well-made shields, who are not prioritised when the army is outfit - who die by far the most from the hwachas. Like the hwachas, this kind of narrative is designed to be hard to read, even for a straight person. But then, per the metaphor, the actual lesbians are the ones with the weaker shield.
(There was originally a paragraph speculating about the author’s identity here which I removed since in retrospect it seems rather intrusive, and I would rather they can come out on their own terms if they so wish.)
Ultimately, I’m a little ambivalent about Baru Cormorant. I can see what it is trying for, and give it credit for attempting an exceptionally difficult narrative. The rest of the book is extremely accomplished, outstanding even, and I intend to learn a lot from it! But at the same time… it hurt, right? There are lots of hints through the narrative as to what Baru’s planning, but if I hadn’t been told a little about the plot outline, it would have really fucked me up I think. As it was, I could take a little distance like, ah, I see we’re getting to that bit, here is the other shoe dropping.
I will read the sequel. I expect it will be interesting. But, god. I don’t want to write Baru Cormorant. I find an awful lot of value in tragedy and pessimism. But I want the lesbians to live, not just to choose the circumstances of their death. There is one place where I strongly disagree with Seth Dickinson’s analysis of their own book:
The simplest defiance, then, is to be happy — to do what so many have done so well, in reality and in art, and imagine a space where happiness is possible and unchallenged.
On the contrary, I think imagining a space where we can be happy - in a true, ongoing way, not a way that hides behind a ‘happily ever after’, that stops as soon as the relationship is confirmed - is not at all simple, but rather the hardest, and most necessary defiance of all. Not to imagine one where happiness is unchallenged, but to recognise the challenges, not just social but interpersonal, and convincingly show they can be defeated, that we and our relationships are resilient enough to survive this hostile world and the traumas it has beaten into us.
There’s more that’s interesting about Baru Cormorant - the way it uses language, for example, with a translation convention that renders everything in English but uses certain English words in a significant way to represent words that exist only in one of its languages. Or, the use of European cultural signifiers in Auldwynn, but with differences as well so that it’s not just a proxy culture. Stylistic matters such as prose.
Gender stuff could be interesting - gender variance is touched on only lightly, in a very brief mention of a culturally specific gender class who pass as binary genders when in dyadic cultures. There are also different norms about what work belongs to men and women: women are expected to navigate ships, for example, and there’s no question that both men and women can be soldiers. But the existence of two classes of “men” and “women”, of whom “women” can become pregnant, is the same. This lack of engagement with the gender binary itself is perhaps a limitation of its examination of imperial homophobia.
But I think I’ve mostly said my piece at this point.
Should you read this book? I hope if you got to this point, you probably have some idea how you might deal with the content. I would not recommend it to another gay person without a hefty content warning. It’s not a happy story by any means whatsoever, so if you are part of the call for gay stories with happy endings, look elsewhere. But I’m glad I read it, personally.
At the same time: I want to supersede it, just like I want to supersede Imperial Radch, and The Left Hand of Darkness, and so forth. I want to one day get to a point where I can really say, “was this all we could do!?”, where the genre as a whole has risen to the challenge. I think that would be the greatest respect I could pay the author, who definitely put their heart into this, and took these questions seriously: to struggle to give my own answer to the challenge raised by the book, of how far it is really possible to fight Empire from within (since I do not have the luxury of an outside to flee too), to carve out an alternative to the stories that capital, white supremacy, etc. enclose us with.
A book that leaves me wanting to do that, that lets me drop 5000 words in one go and still have me wanting to say more, is one that deserves respect, I think.