This is the second part of a series of articles on The Tyrant Baru Cormorant—part review, part meta, part commentary. For intro and links to the others, go here!

  1. On the epigraph
  2. Defamiliarisation and distillation

On the epigraph

The first book opened with an epigraph:

A promise: This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.

The second book opens with a followup epigraph:

A question: If something hurts, does that make it true?

The third book opens with a different sort of epigraph, an anecdote from the real-world history that inspired the book:

In 1502 the samudri of Calicut, desperate to stop violent Portuguese incursions into the Indian Ocean trade network, sent two letters. One begged his neighbor the raja of Cochin to close all markets to the Europeans. The raja of Cochin, who saw Calicut as his historical enemy, leaked this letter to the Portuguese.

The other letter offered a blanket peace to the Portuguese admiral, Vasco da Gama.

Da Gama sailed to Calicut to demand reparations and the expulsion of all Muslims. When he was not immediately indulged, he seized hostages, hung them from his masts, and bombarded the city. That evening he sent the severed hands, feet, and heads of the hostages ashore in a boat, along with a note, fixed to the prow by an arrow. “I have come to this port to buy and sell and pay for your produce; here is the produce of this country.”

The note also demanded compensation for the powder and shot used to destroy Calicut.

If the people of Calicut did this, da Gama said, they would become his friends.

I was curious about the history behind this...

Calicut is officially called Kozhikode, and it’s a city on the southwest coast of India, at the time the capital of the state of Kerala. The ‘samudri’ named here are better known by the terms Samoothiri or Zamorin, and they were the long-term ruling dynasty of the city. Many of their individual names have not been recorded, so it is not known which specific Samoothiri leader confronted de Gama and his Fourth Armada, though it is apparently estimated to be the 85th. Kozhikode was at the time a rich city, benefiting from the ludicrously profitable spice trade around the Indian Ocean. The Portugese wanted a slice of the pie: a full cargo of spices would easily fund an expedition and then some. And longer term, they wanted to take over the trade entirely.

And de Gama’s beef with Muslims? That related to the Second Portugese Armada. Portugese traders visiting Kozhikode attacked an Arab ship, believing the Arabs were colluding to shut them out of the spice market. Furious, the Arab traders rioted and killed most of the Portugese; the Portugese blamed the Samoothiri for not doing anything, and started burning Arab ships and bombarding the city. de Gama’s Fourth Armada was explicitly set out to teach the Samoothiri a lesson.

As an aside in this aside, in order to reach India, Portugese ships had to sail all the way around the coast of Africa. The Second Armada somehow accidentally ended up visiting the region we now call Brazil, setting the stage for future Portugese colonialism in South America. But let’s return to de Gama.

You can read more about de Gama’s attack on Kozhikode here. Prior to his attacks on the Samoothiri, de Gama had been sailing down the coast of India (not at that point a unified country). His ‘factors’ (essentially trade-related ambassadors) negotiated fixed-price treaties, and established a system of cartaz licenses which merchants had to have to show that they were paying Portugese taxes.

He also, in an act of particularly astonishing brutality even by the standards of the time (as many chroniclers noted), attacked a Muslim pilgrim ship, looting its cargo and then sealing the passengers in the hold while he burned and sank the ship, and sending his sailors to spear any survivors. The number of people on board is estimated at 200-300.

Then, we get to the anecdote above. It’s pretty much as described. Part of what was at contention was compensation for the riot in 1500. de Gama demanded nothing short of full compensation for the loss of the Portugese factory (not as in a manufacturing plant, but as in a place where factors work), and refused to acknowledge the Samoothiri’s points about how much de Gama had already taken from Kozhikode.

As for what happened next, the 85th Samoothiri refused de Gama’s ultimatums. de Gama continued his bombardment, levelling the poorer districts, but left a blockade rather than land troops to completely sack the city. He hoped that the Samoothiri would eventually come to terms. This attack completely froze trade on the Indian Ocean for a period, and de Gama sailed around for another few months, negotiating another fixed-price treaty in Cochin.

However, de Gama was not ultimately successful in crushing the Samoothiri, who was able to recruit privateers through de Gama’s blockade to attempt a naval defense of the city. de Gama defeated the Samoothiri’s fleet decisively, but the incident left him afraid the Samoothiri would continue to resist, perhaps even allying with other European powers. He returned to Portugal to declare it would take more force to crush the Samoothiri and maintain Portugal’s holdings in Indiia.

The Samoothiri, meanwhile, sent an army over land to Cochin to demand their Portugese factors, and ultimately burned Cochin down, but was forced to leave the city when the Fifth Armada showed up. Kozhikode would continue to battle the Portugese for the next century; there was briefly a Portugese fort but the Samoothiri burned it down. But the city would not escape colonialism altogether: more than two hundred years later, Kozhikode would be conquered by Hyder Ali from Mysore, an ally of the British East India Company. After some time in exile, the Samoothiri would eventually return to Kozhikode as pensioners dependent on the East India Company for their income, but this ended after India became independent. They’re still around today, managing certain Hindu temples, and trying to get the Indian government to start paying them again.

What bearing does this have? For a fantasy novel series, Baru Cormorant is unusually rich in culture, history, and especially, thought-through economics. But it’s still not as absurdly complex and messy as our own world’s history. This is something of the nature of ‘world building’…

Defamiliarisation and distillation

What is the purpose of creating a fantasy novel, rather than merely writing about history directly? After all, even the densest, most thought-through fantasy world will always be a slim imitation of the cacophonous mess of ‘everything that ever happened on Earth’!

For me, it’s something akin to a line drawing vs. a photorealistic painting. The painting tries to create something as close to the light field we might perceive at the eye as possible. The drawing strips away a great deal of information; instead, it attempts to draw out something essential. It tells a story about how things fit together, about what the artist notices.

A fantasy novel is similar. There are many takes on ‘world building’, some very negative (‘the great clomping foot of nerdism’) and some positive. In recent years, various articles and youtube videos have sprung up offering advice on how to make your ‘world’ plausible in terms of geology, climate, etc. But all of this can seem very self-indulgent—not at all a bad thing, I like world building for fun!—without an actual purpose behind it.

Baru Cormorant is, of course, a series about colonialism. It wants to understand the mechanism of the history that created this present world order, of capitalist domination by the rich countries, and poke at the question—I believe—of how it may be broken. The question Baru asks at the beginning of the first book—why do they have all the power, and not us?—frames the series, especially since she offers an answer near the end of this book.

In this vein, worldbuilding represents a kind of thought experiment, or hypothesis. The underlying question is: how do people and societies work? The claim is: this is a plausible course of events. And by observing it, and considering it carefully, we might get an angle on the real world, also.

Why should Baru go to such lengths to build an imaginary world with a complex history, extensive cultural and ideological variation, and economics? I think the subject matter demands it. If you are to understand colonialism, you have to understand how its economics work; you need to understand how it produces its own colonialist subjects and keeps them working towards colonial expansion; you need to understand that (contra books like Imperial Radch), colonialists rarely took control through overwhelming military strength, but played off factions against each other, lending poisoned ‘support’ to make useful allies and puppets. If you try to write a simple story about resistance against colonialism, you will fail to understand your subject.

But it’s not just dryly relating things that actually happened; it is a dramatisation, compressing centuries of not much happening into a few decades, placing intense, dramatic personalities at the centre, and enticing us with weird alternative possibilities. Approaching it indirectly.

As such, it takes various measures to defamiliarise us from the history it’s drawing on. ‘Defamiliarisation’ is a technique in science fiction and fantasy where an everyday thing is described in unfamiliar language, to draw attention to it. Baru Cormorant does this a lot.

Not for everything: reading Baru Cormorant, I noticed that obscure technical terms would often be used without replacement. For example, I would occasionally have to look up words for parts of a boat, such as ‘coaming’, which refers to the bits around a watertight doorframe. However, more familiar ones would be given alternative names with similar etymologies.

For example, the Masquerade does not call people ‘homosexual’, but ‘isoamorous’; its homophobia is rooted in its eugenic philosophy. It does not call people ‘lesbians’, but ‘tribadists’; not ‘gay men’ but ‘sodomites’. Obviously, there is no biblical city of Sodom in this world, nor a Greek origin to offer ‘iso-‘ roots as an alternative to ‘homo-‘. But this substitution is defamiliarising—it lets us look at the Masquerade’s vicious homophobia in a slightly different light, calls attention to its specific ideological component to illustrate how something like homophobia functions.

The same trick is performed with certain common mathematical and scientific terms. Rather than \(pi\), they speak of the ‘circle number’, rather than \(e\) (Euler’s number) they speak of the ‘number of interest’ (as in, compound interest, where money rises exponentially). Rather than the North Pole, we hear of the ‘lodepoint’. These alternative names are rarely all that difficult to parse, and more obscure technical terms—particular in economics—are usually used without obfuscation, even with explanation.

To me, the purpose of all these tricks is to make the setting feel familiar enough to be comprehensible, but distant enough to be subject to scrutiny. The role of science is particularly interesting—in some ways, these books are much more science fiction than fantasy. Many of the weirder things in the book, like transmissible cancers, Baru’s mental state, or the Faraday cage people in lightning land we briefly glimpse at the end, have a basis in scientific research.

But though this book is based so heavily on science, it is deeply skeptical of the institution of science. In Baru’s world, as in ours, science is bound up with power, always. In the present, the Falcresti ideology of Incrasticism is a blend of familiar scientific truth and outright delusion, such as ‘Torrindian heredity’, but its proponents are oblivious to which parts are wrong. One chapter is directly titled ‘epistemic violence’, in which Baru witnesses a massacre by the Canaat rebels of Kyprananoke, who have correctly learned that Incrastic ‘hygiene’ is almost always a tool used by their oppressors to control and mutilate them, and in response have developed an ideology where all tools of Falcrest, from surgery to quarantine, are to be violently purged from the political body. (This seems to be an allusion to, for example, the Khmer Rouge treatment of ‘intellectuals’ during the Cambodian genocide, and the resistance to vaccination faced by white-controlled health NGOs.) I have more to say about this, but we’ll come to it later.

Through making science just a little unfamiliar to the presumably scientifically literate reader, we’re pretty obviously (to me) invited to view our own institutions of science with the same wariness that the characters view Incrasticism. Though this might be me just seeing confirmation of my existing beliefs :p

Mind you, it’s not a case of ‘rational European-analogues, mystical foreigners’. Science is not just a weapon held by Falcrest—we are often reminded that scientific techniques originated in the Oriati Mbo, contra the low opinion held of them by Falcresti racism (or ‘racialism’ as its termed in this world). At one point, we’re related the history of the Cancrioth… which means it’s time to talk about wizards.