I have read The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. (Despite the best efforts of the publishing industry.)
What a series! Like, damn.
- How we got here
- The arc of the series to come
Last year, I read the first two books in the Masquerade series, watching Baru Cormorant as first a Traitor and then a Monster. Many people responded with insightful additions and kind words. Ever since then, those books have sat in my head accruing emotions. I read the commentaries on Seth’s blog, I reread favourite passages, even somehow became Twitter friends with the author.
And then Tyrant came out.
Obviously, I loved it. So I decided to write another post: one to capture all the thoughts it inspired, run my fingers along the thematic parallels, quibble the philosophy and follow up the history and science.
When that post reached 25,000 words, I realised it was possibly a bit much to release in one go.
So what is this? This is the beginning of my Tyrant Baru Cormorant series. Like the last post in this series, it sits somewhere in the space between review, meta and commentary. To give this book the kind of loving engagement I feel like it deserves, and share all the exciting things it makes me think about.
A quick aside on pronouns and suchI actually had a chance to speak with the author briefly, albeit while they were going through some pretty tough circumstances. (I don't have that line anymore, so if you're reading this, Seth, hi! I really hope I do your books justice and I'd love to find some way to connect again.) I'm going to put a hard line up about speculating about Seth's personal life in this post. Since I don't have a way to check in anymore, I am going to be refer to Seth as Seth since that's the name on the book cover, and use 'they' pronouns because their Twitter bio said 'any pronouns' when it was up. But Seth, if you read this and you are uncomfortable with any part of that please let me know and I'll edit any of these posts.
How we got here
Because it’s been a year since the last, I wanted to recap what this series has been about so far! A lot of this is only revealed gradually, but this is the picture as we have it at the end of Monster. Reading this is not necessary for the rest of the article, but it might be handy to refer back to.
A 2500 hundred word 'summary'
The Baru Cormorant series tells the story of a girl from the volcanic island nation of Taranoke, in a world that is physically similar to our own but with different geography, cultures, and history. But it’s also secondarily the story of a nonbinary Prince Tau-Indi Bosoka from a federation of broadly West African cultures called the Oriati Mbo, and of another secret rebel doing terrible things, Xate Yawa, from a cold feudal land called Aurdwynn, and of an Oriati expatriate navy girl, Aminata.
Chronologically, as I’m presenting it here, the story that we see begins in the Mbo. A small nation called Falcrest has overthrown its monarchy, and its new republican government (nicknamed the ‘Masquerade’) has rapidly started to expand and attempt to take control of the ‘trade circle’ of a sea that somewhat resembles the Indian ocean. In so doing, they challenge the long-standing power of the Mbo, whose diverse people boast of a thousand year history guided by a semi-religious philosophy called ‘trim’, a combination of deontological ethics and conviction in the long-ranging mystical influence of personal connections.
Unexpectedly, Falcrest defeats the Mbo on the sea. After the first battle, two men named Cairdine Farrier and Cosgrad Torrinde arrive in Lonjaro Mbo as part of a hostage exchange. They’re not just any hostages—they’re here of course as spies, each trying to understand how to crack open the Mbo, though they spend a great deal of their time getting tropical diseases instead. There, the Falcresti encounter a trio of young friends: the Princes (gender neutral title) Tau-Indi Bosoka and Kindalana, raised to fulfil an administrative and religious function, and their close friend Abdumasi Abd. As the war drags on, the kids fall out due to teenage drama. Prince Tau, who believes in Trim more than anyone, comes to believe that this falling out is the reason for the war—the large echoing the small.
In Monster, we don’t find out how this part of the story ends. Let’s move the camera to a cold, rebellious feudal nation called Aurdwynn. Xate Yawa is a stable girl living miserably under the aristocracy with her brother. She and her antiroyalist comrades, among them her brother Xate Olake, betray the aristocrats to Falcrest, believing they will do away with the aristocracy. But to her horror, Falcrest keeps the aristocrats around and at the same time, imposes all kinds of eugenic brutalities on Aurdwynn’s people. Yawa betrays an early attempt at rebellion, convinced it is not the time, allowing herself to wriggle into the Falcresti administration. She earns the dubious honour of becoming the person who carries out all the torture, conditioning and lobotomies of the Falcrest administration. But secretly, her goal is much like our main girl Baru: to ‘save’ her homeland of Aurdwynn from aristocrats and imperialists alike, by rising up in the ranks of the Masquerade until she has the chance to drive Falcrest out of Aurdwynn for real. We’ll come back to her later.
Also significant are the Tain family, from the proud but very poor north of Aurdwynn. We have Tain Ko, who has a relationship with Xate Olake (Yawa’s brother) and sides with the antiroyalists, and joins the rebellion against Falcrest; we have her daughter Tain Shir who is one of Farrier’s protégés; and we have her niece, Tain Hu, who ends up the duchess after Tain Shir kills her own mother on Farrier’s orders. At some point prior to that, but offscreen, we know Tain Shir fought a brutal guerilla war in the Oriati jungle for Farrier’s sake; at some point after, she goes off the rails and rebels against Farrier, pursuing her own one-woman anarchist campaign in far more direct ways.
The first book opens on Taranoke. Taranoke’s people have got things broadly figured out: they live off the sea trade with a society organised into extended nonmonogamous families, with relatively little regard for gender. Though there are conflicts between different cultural groups, even war, there is nothing like the brutality that Falcrest will soon unleash. Our picture of Taranoke comes across as near idyllic - not a paper utopia but a place where people are caring, and funny, and living pretty well. Though of course, this is perhaps in part because our viewpoint character Baru fetishises it in distant hindsight, even as she forgets more of her life there.
At the outset of the series, Baru is a child when Falcrest arrives to turn her home into a colony. Falcrest applies all the colonialist tools of exploitation. They play different cultural groups against each other, carefully lending its military power to one side so as to indebt Baru’s people to them; they insinuate their fiat currency into the island’s economy until the Taranoki are increasingly dependent on Falcrest; they use selective innoculations to protect their allies from the smallpox and cholera plagues they ‘coincidentally’ brought with them. And, of course, they build schools to indoctrinate the island’s young people into Falcrest’s ideology of ‘Incrasticism’.
(The specific tenets of Incrasticism we will discuss later in more detail, but we’ll note for not that it is a nasty fascist mix of scientism, eugenics, fetishisation of cleanliness, and Lamarckian delusions about heredity, all effectively oriented towards social control.)
Baru specifically is targeted by a man called Cairdine Farrier, one of Falcrest’s most powerful men and an element of the ‘Throne’ who (at least in their imaginations) are orchestrating Falcrest’s rise to power. She’s subjected to a program of grooming and indoctrination designed to inculcate a deep belief that, for example, expressing her lesbianism or otherwise moving against Falcrest’s interests can only ever end in disaster. In pursuit of this plan, as well as teaching her to associate Falcrest’s methods with power and knowledge and subtly moving to alienate from her family, Farrier has Tain Shir kidnap one of her dads, Salm, and claims to Baru he is dead as a punishment for homosexuality; he has her close friend Aminata attack her over her lesbianism; all the while he’s posing as a merchant, positioning himself as her benefactor and her route to the power to meaningfully oppose Falcrest from within.
Over the course of Monster, we found out that the Throne, far from being united in their methods of would-be absolute rule, are divided between two equally delusional theories of power—but though their theories are delusional, their consequences are very real. So Farrier is in competition with another man, a eugenicist and surgeon named Cosgrad Torrinde. Cosgrad is a proponent of a kind of Lamarckian heredity, believing particles of behaviour are acquired through action and then passed on, so that people can’t escape what he imagines to be the inherent tendencies of their race; he hopes to eugenically engineer the perfect citizen, by discovering a way that behaviours can be surgically implanted. Farrier, meanwhile, believes that his ‘Farrier process’ of operant conditioning can teach anyone to keep their ‘unhygienic’ impulses in check, and his proof is that he’s abused Baru into acting in Falcrest’s interest, not sleeping with other women, etc.
The context of this challenge is that a mysterious woman called Renascent, who has yet to explicitly appear on screen but apparently has hooks in both Farrier and Torrinde, has challenged them to prove their respective theories; the reward will be the blackmail material she holds on the other one. This is not unusual in a way: blackmail is the glue that holds the ‘cryptarchs’ of Falcrest’s secret government together in any semblance of unity. In particular, each cryptarch, upon their appointment, is compromised by an order to execute someone they love. For example, the character Svir—who we’ll meet later—has his partner Lindon under threat of execution for homosexuality. When they cannot go through with it, an exceptional, temporary stay of execution is granted by grace of the (lobotomised figurehead) Emperor—one which will be removed as soon as the cryptarch starts acting up against their patron.
The first book, Traitor, tells the story of how Baru earns the right to be named a cryptarch, in the role of Imperial Accountant for Aurdwynn. Baru’s task is to break the rebellion, permanently; she does this by first financially crushing one attempt, then—on a subtle insinuation from Farrier, via Svir—building up a second rebellion in its place, one credible enough to draw in the troublesome aristocrats who Falcrest wishes to remove and overthrow Falcrest’s incompetent governor, and then at the last minute reveal that she was an agent of Throne all along, bringing all the rebels into one place where Falcrest can liquidate them. Through this convoluted ploy, which involves betraying a very large number of people on the way, Baru proves both her loyalty to Falcrest and her capacity to pull the economic strings to manipulate nations.
In the course of the rebellion, Baru betrays people left right and centre. For example, she pretends to offer marriage to the Necessary King of the neighbouring Stakhieczi for long enough to get their military support, but humiliates him by turning out to be a traitor, putting his position and life at risk. She uses one Duke Unuxekome to get support from Oriati privateers, and through him, unknowingly uses Abdumasi Abd, only to betray them all to the Falcrest navy. And she makes a close ally of Xate Yawa’s brother, Xate Olake, who is hit especially hard by her final betrayal.
But there is one person she stays loyal to: she falls deeply for the duchess Tain Hu, now the ruler the impoverished northern province of Vultjag. She doesn’t allow herself to be with Tain Hu for long, too caught up in Farrier’s indoctrination to associate sleeping with a woman with misery. But they spend a night together on the last night of the rebellion’s apparent victory, before Baru arranges to send Tain Hu away so that at least she will be safe. Tain Hu, however turns herself in, presenting herself as the hostage to secure Baru as a cryptarch—and she is the one who proposes that Baru must kill her, so that Baru can make good on any of the things she believed she could accomplish for Taranoke. So Baru carries out Tain Hu’s execution, seemingly cold-bloodedly, closing Book 1 on an absolutely gut-punch, tragic note.
Monster concerns Baru steadily descending to rock bottom as she reckons with her grief and the conditioning of Farrier. Together with Svirakir, another cryptarch (who is secretly the brother of the Necessary King of the Stakhieczi), Baru flees the mutineer Admiral Ormsment who wishes to bring her down for her role in the Aurdwynn affair. Travelling with Ormsment is Baru’s childhood friend, Aminata, who has become an effective torturer of her fellow Oriati for Falcrest’s navy. She still desperately believes in Baru, and joins Ormsment’s pursuit to find out the truth.
Baru’s head injury, combined with the horrific circumstances of Tain Hu’s death, has left her with a condition known as ‘hemineglect’, where she is unaware of things on the right side of her body, and something close to ‘split brain’ or callosal syndrome. The left side of Baru’s brain is the one controlling her body, and it is not communicating with the right side of her brain. The right side of Baru’s brain has meanwhile come to represent a separate person, which she conceives of as essentially her image of Tain Hu—in Tyrant, the word tulpa is used, but we can get to that.
Over the course of the book, Baru hops between a series of islands, gradually giving in to drink and depression as she wrestles with her fear that she is truly Farrier’s creature, though not without chances to let her awful brilliance shine to crash the odd economy. She and Yawa are each tasked with tracking down the elusive ‘Cancrioth’, essentially cancer wizards and slavers who were long ago overthrown in Oriati legend. Confirmation of the Cancrioth would be immensely valuable for both Farrier and Torrinde, but moreover, the mission is a chance for them to test their respective theories of control: whether Baru, as an exemplar of the ‘Farrier process’, can maintain the control of her behaviour as an ideal citizen of the republic. Xate Yawa, meanwhile, is, by Torrinde’s standard, supposedly far more eugenically suited to this kind of work than Baru.
Torrinde has another project, anyway: the Clarified, who are eugenically bred and conditioned to be pliable servants of the republic, each one answering to a specific command word. This project has limited a success; many Clarified ‘wash out’, and of the two Clarified we meet over the course of the series, both end up breaking from their conditioning (in limited, partial ways—Iscend Comprine, who features in book 2, starts using her own command word). But through their training and specific brand of lifelong indoctrination, the Clarified tend to have pretty fucked senses of ethics, and a lot of lethal skills.
Over the course of Baru’s trip, a great many significant things happen. She becomes something like friends with Iraji, an Oriati boy described as a concubine for Svir, who reacts strangely whenever the Cancrioth are mentioned. She catches up with some of the survivors from Vultjag, and starts sleeping with one, a diver named Ulyu Xe and disciple of the Aurdwynni ilykari religion. And she meets Tain Shir, who has decided to pursue a long project: Shir will chase Baru and punish her for the way she used Tain Hu, and her in-practive devotion to Falcrest, by confronting her with the choice to sacrifice others and mutilating her when she chooses wrong. She also has a bunch of sex with a navy woman, a racist called Shao Lune who’s part of Ormsment’s mutiny. She’s a busy girl!
In the course of her travels, Baru encounters Tau-Indi Bosoka, now an ambassador in their 40s, who at first wants nothing to do with her. But she comes across Tau again as their ship is sinking, and Tau conceives of a ploy to draw Baru into the bonds of trim, by trapping them both in a sinking ship—and Baru ultimately confesses the truth to Tau. So, Tau ends up travelling with her to the island of Kyprananoke.
Kyprananoke is another victim of Falcrest, ruled by the brutal Kyprists who were once Falcrest’s chosen puppet government and, once Falcrest gave up on turning a profit there, held on by sheer brutality and their hold on the water supply. Baru shows up at the Oriati embassy and starts questioning everyone about Iraji, trying to discover if anyone’s connected to the Cancrioth. Admiral Ormsment catches up with the embassy, threatening Baru’s surviving parents in order to force her out to duel. In an attempt at a decisive break from her fall into ethical morass, to break from Farrier’s control, to avoid betraying Tau’s faith in her… Baru accepts. But at that moment, the embassy is stormed by anti-Kyprist rebels infected with an ebola-like disease called the Kettling. To contain it, Aminata, who is watching with her marines, burns the embassy and almost everyone inside.
Baru escapes, and in the chaos, ends up being taken to the Cancrioth ship she was taken for so long. At the outset of Tyrant, she is on the enormous Cancrioth ship Eternal, about to get to grips with the mysterious cancer wizards.
…phew, that’s a lot. And that’s just stuff that’s directly relevant to this book.
In short: in Traitor, Baru betrays the people of Aurdwynn, by playing at traitor to the Masquerade well enough to flush out the genuine rebels. But in truth she is genuinely aspiring to betray the Masquerade, and ultimately she believes herself loyal to Taranoke.
In Monster, she has painted herself as something abominable to even the vicious, blackmail-dominated world of the cryptarchs, someone who would betray her own lover. Or is she a monster because she has been turned into a loyal tool of Farrier, too fucked by his abuse to ever do anything that would make her happy or fail to act in his interests? In any case, from all sides, including herself, she is despised.
Now, we reach Tyrant. By tradition, the name of this book should mean that Baru’s tyrant-ness is ambiguous, arguable in many ways depending who you ask. Let’s see…
The arc of the series to come
This post is just an introduction. The substance of this series will begin in the next post. But to give some hints about where we’re going…
- An odd flavour of history
- Tyrant opens in an epigraph, opening a tiny window into the ugly, messy history that inspired it. The history of just one small region of our planet is overwhelming. So why bother making up a fantasy one, which will always be smaller? Let’s talk about the sci-fi technique of defamiliarisation.
- Anti-wizardischte Aktion
- Last time round I doubted the cancer wizards. But I needn’t have worried: this book is doing something very interesting after all! What is the real power of a wizard? And what are the Cancrioth really like when we get to know them?
- Mason dust in the wound
- Baru’s not had the best time in this series, and in this book she hits rock bottom. Tau calls her a ‘wound’ in trim, who is poisoning the web of social connections. Are they right? What is being ‘human’? And what happens to dear Baru when she finally connects with her dead-girlfriend tulpa on a lobotomy table?
- The corpse-hollow
- Baru witnesses (another!) genocide on Kyprananoke. We take a look at the book’s treatment of it, its dark questions about agency, and Baru’s ecological angle on the horror of genocide.
- Kimbune’s Theorem
- Capitalist economics, population growth, disease, cancer, radioactivity—the subjects of Baru Cormorant are all linked through the terrifying power of exponential growth and decay. In this book, Baru encounters a different angle on exponentials, through a famous mathematical theorem. What can this angle tell us?
- Butchering an empire
- As she breaks free of Farrier’s story, Baru hatches a grand new grand plan. But can it possibly achieve the desired result? Perhaps 17th-century economic history can be a lens to help us understand. Or perhaps post-Nazi Germany has the answer. Or perhaps the Soviet Union! What happens when modern empires fall?
- Horse-archers and Anti-Mannism
- We’ve seen the grandiose scope of Baru’s plan—but first she has a lot of obstacles to deal with, from a fucked up mountain culture to a fucked up money man. t all hinges on gender. (And the fact that she tops.)
- The maniple
- Baru has hemineglect. She’s frequently on drugs. She’s afraid they’ll lobotomise her. The Brain has brain cancer. Iscend does ikejime. Iraji puts a pig brain in his mouth. Our minds exist in the world… yet still we act.
- Obviously I loved this book. But what do I want to take from it, when I’m trying to follow its example?
Sound good? Great! Grab some water, and let’s set sail.