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!
It’s time to talk about the cancrioth. It’s time to talk about wizards.
- Let’s talk about wizards!
- Court of the clinic
- The resources of the Cancrioth
- A Bryn of little faith
Let’s talk about wizards!
In the last review, I declared my reservations about the concept of the Cancrioth. Their reputation is built up over the course of that book as shadow rulers equal and opposite the Falcresti cryptarchs, blessed with radiation-themed magic. As we meet the Cancrioth at the end of Monster, it starts to seem like their reputation has some truth: they do seemingly impossible things like cultivating transmissible tumours, even implanting them into a whale; they light their ship with radioactive light.
In this book, the Cancrioth are pretty quickly deflated in some ways, but in others their role becomes more apparent. Far from the secret rulers of the Oriati Mbo, as the cryptarchs project, the Cancrioth are a fairly obscure cult of cancer worshippers who rule almost nothing, but cultivate transmissible tumours in their bodies, trying to keep each ‘line’ alive since it is believed to contain an immortal soul. Beyond this knowledge, their only real asset is a very large ship, the Eternal, with a lot of expensive things on board. But this ship is a relic, and its cannons are useless against Falcresti warships.
Yet in a certain sense, the Cancrioth are wizards—or perhaps it would be better to say magicians. For this reading, I’m going to go slightly left field and refer to an entirely different book, Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick. In this book, a bureaucrat goes to a planet held in a technologically limited state to pursue a magician who has stolen some forbidden tech. As he makes his pursuit, he’s drawn into mysticism, and various psychological tricks that work to convince him that his quarry is powerful and dangerous—a reputation he’s carefully built, drawing on this world’s mythology around transformation, traditional alchemy, etc. etc.
The bureaucrat is constantly questioning the nature of ‘magic’, while getting increasingly drawn into its rituals. As he learns about his target, the Gregorian, it becomes increasingly apparent that the magic is mostly various kinds of nasty ritualised abuse, self-serving philosophy, and manipulation. What makes the Gregorian an effective magician is his ability to convince other people he holds power, to get the whole world to play along with his performance.
Now let’s talk about John Dee, the man who coined the term ‘British Empire’ and advocated for its creation. John Dee was an alchemist and a mathematician and astronomer/astrologer etc., who spent much of his later life trying to figure out a way to commune with angels. And he had power, in large part due to his learned reputation. He was one of the advisors to Queen Elizabeth I, including on astrological matters such as the most auspicious day of coronation, and a navigational advisor on many of England’s voyages to conquer and claim various parts of the ‘New World’. He was associated with another alchemist, Edward Kelley.
In this time, to be a successful alchemist was to convince a feudal noble that you could advise them on spiritual and scientific matters—the philosophy of the time recognising no such distinction, though the question of whether one was a good Christian was more pertinent. After Dee’s death, he was surrounded by rumours about his sorcery—whether, for example, his communications with angels were actually evil spirits. A modern scientific view of people like Dee is of course to dismiss him as either deluded or a con artist: of course there were no angels. But Dees rhetorical positioning of himself as an occultist full of secret knowledge gave him influence.
The Cancrioth are practicioners of this sort of magic. There are a handful of major Cancrioth characters, each named for the location of their tumour: the Womb, the Eye, the Brain. They have no chain of command as such, but the crew of Eternal is divided into factions: the Brain wants to push Falcrest and the Oriati into war as the only answer to Falcrest’s imperial aspirations; the Eye and Womb would prefer that Eternal pick up Abdumasi Abd (who, it turns out, is a Cancrioth member) and go home.
At one point, Baru and Iraji engage in a spiritual confrontation with the Brain. Although Iraji was selected as the bearer of a particular tumour, for which he is well-suited as a host (the Cancrioth’s tumours can enter into benign symbiosis with their host, or kill them), he does not have a tumour, thus he has no magic power in the Cancrioth’s eyes. Tau figures out a way to grant Iraji power: Iraji puts a cancerous pig’s brain, full of malignant tumours, in his mouth.
It wasn’t the first magic Aminata had ever seen. The Oriati pirates she’d fought commonly used sorcery, the sympathetic destruction of Falcresti flags and uniforms and the use of spirit circuits to hold back fire. But this was the most violent, the most sudden, the most appalling in its effect.
He screamed at them through the cancer, and when the Termites heard that wail, when they saw the moaning man coming at them with cancer in his teeth, they all began to shout and to pull at each other, a diffusion of fear, so they would all have the excuse of someone’s else tugging arms to explain the retreat. “Incrisiath!” one of them screamed. “Incrisiath! A sorcerer!”
We see this scene through the eyes of Aminata, an expatriate Oriati who holds Falcrest’s skepticism towards Oriati magic, but also fears, based on Falcresti notions of heredity, that somehow her Oriati background will make her subject to magic:
Iraji screamed at her. Speak through it, Tau-indi had told him, speak so your voice becomes its hunger and when she hears that hunger she will feel her own immortata rise to answer it. It is the nightmare of all the onkos to be devoured by their own immortality, and for their Line to end in malignancy. Worst of all for the Brain, for her tumor is in her thoughts.
The Brain’s hands flew to her head. She fell to her knees on the clay-tablet flooring, and Aminata saw, distinctly saw, that there were tears of pain in the Brain’s eyes.
The magic worked.
At that sight she felt a cold twinge of migraine behind her own right temple. “No,” she said, out loud, “no, not me.” But she could feel it, she could feel the scream in her head.
It worked on her, too. The magic worked on her too.
This confrontation works, because to refuse the magical performance would be to deny the terms of the Brain’s own power as an ‘onkos’ (cancer holder).
There was a chance, even then, that the Brain might have refused him, and fought. One of the Termites might simply have shot Iraji. But there were people watching: the Brain’s people, her navigators and sailors, the educated folk who believed hard in her and in the terms of her power.
If a Termite dared interrupt this confrontation, then the Cancrioth would see sacrilege. And if the Brain did not yield, then her people knew, the way all believers know what they believe, that she would be struck down. Her tumor would swell up and drive her mad.
And she knew they knew it, in the way that one brain considers the knowledge of another.
“I yield,” she said. “I grant you passage.”
Like all stage magic, it’s in the presentation. In simple, physical terms, all that happens is that one person puts something gross in his mouth, risking infection by a malignant tumour, and shouts at everyone. But Tau-Indi, though not a sorceror themself, has understood the symbolic logic of the Cancrioth well enough to turn this gesture into a challenge to the Brain’s own power.
Later, Baru has a discussion about the nature of magic with Ulyu Xe:
Barhu grounded them in a flood meadow and showed Xe how to take temperature readings with a mercury thermometer.
“It’s like magic,” Xe said.
“It absolutely is not!”
“You told me that masters in Falcrest spend two years calibrating each thermometer to the tenth of the degree. That they must be stored with a certain ritual. That they can kill you if you break them open. That they must be destroyed before falling into foreign hands. That they can tell when people are sick before they even know.”
“But this thermometer works by clear, well-understood logical rules. Magic doesn’t work at all.”
Xe lay down on the bank and trailed her bare toes in the water. “You’d only be satisfied if magic were like a rag novel. A wizard shoots a bolt of lightning to animate a corpse. A warlock calls down a star from the sky to blind his foe. But that’s not really magic. It’s just made-up science.”
“No it’s not!” Barhu sputtered.
“Yes it is. If you can see how it works, it’s science. If a wizard were to show you a book of rules by which he combines various gestures and words and gems and metals to make his spells, it would be science, not magic.”
“What isn’t science, by your definition?”
Xe rolled onto her back and squirmed out of her skirtwrap. “When a witch raises a rabbit with the same name as a man, and kills and skins the rabbit, and then pisses through the rabbit’s skin into a pit of gravel, and the man gets kidney stones. The witch never touched the man. She never acted upon him. She only touched symbols of him.”
“Oh, fine.” Barhu crossed her arms and glared. “So magic doesn’t work except when it can be disguised as the coincidence of symbolic manipulation and natural occurrence? That’s very powerful.”
“The most powerful thing in the world,” Xe said, untying her strophium and sliding deeper into the water.
I think there is something deeply true at the heart of this. Ultimately, the difference between a wizard calling forth a holy light, and a person turning on a lightbulb, is the social meaning that we give to these acts.
And there is still a great deal of ceremonial magic even surrounding our ‘more accurate’ scientific understanding of the present. How does a crank mathematician, trying to explain how Einstein is wrong, actually, attempt to build an image of credibility? How does Andrew Wakefield build up his reputation as he peddles pure bullshit about vaccines? They replicate the symbols of science: degrees and doctorates, dry passive voice language, so on and so forth.
Court of the clinic
The Cancrioth too are scientists as much as wizards. When Baru speaks to the brain, she learns more about their actual history, not as magicians but as scientists.
I talked in the last article how one of the deep concerns of Falcrest is civilisational collapse—a collapse mirroring the fall of historical empires, especially such terms as the Late Bronze Age Collapse, or the fall of the Roman Empire, in our world. In Baru’s world, the most recent great empire to fall was known as the Cheetah Palaces, more than a thousand years prior to the events of the book. In their wake, various slave societies sprang up known as the Paramountcies. The Cancrioth developed out of the various parties in the Paramountcies assigned the work of stopping the slaves dying quite so much: advisors, educated slaves, and mystics. The weapon they discovered in their ‘Work Against Death’ is nakedly the placebo-controlled clinical trial:
It was Alu, lamchild of a priest-linguist, who suggested the method of home-group and journey-group that would revolutionize the world. Alu wanted a better way to test the medicinal effect of jungle plants. Alu knew a story about twin princesses, one of whom went out into the world to journey, one of whom stayed at home in the palace to study, each swearing to learn whether worldliness or scholarship made a better queen. The story was about the value of a monarch connected to the people and the seasons: but Alu extracted a different lesson from it.
The traveling sister had to leave a twin at home so she could learn how her journey changed her. How could you know if a medicine was successful without a group of untreated slaves “at home”? Maybe your new drug was no better than rest and bed care. If you were going to bring a plant to your lord as a panacea, if you were going to ask your lord to spend farmland and labor raising that plant, you had better be damn well sure it worked.
And it did work. Alu’s method worked. It condensed the whole Work Against Death, the entire menagerie of apotropaic magic, poisonous brews, and ritual surgeries, into a rigorous grid of tests that filtered the gold from the water.
The success of this form of scientific medicine motivated a similar reaction as it has in our world: the rich and powerful got big ideas about becoming immortal. But while our would-be liches look to tech like reparative gene therapy, the rulers of the Paramountcies ended up pursuing a different route. They discovered a part of the continent Oria where uranium deposits were close to the surface, ‘hot caves’ (presumably natural nuclear reactors like Oklo Mine) and ‘secret fire’. In our world’s language, what they discovered was both radioactive material and an ecosystem of bioluminescent animals and plants which responded to the presence of ionising radiation, like the radioluminescent paint used in old glow-in-the-dark radium clocks.
But the discovery of this water that inculcated cancer took a different route. The Cancrioth, and their masters, became convinced that tumours could carry an immortal soul, passed between bodies. They managed to selectively breed tumours which could exist relatively benignly in a human body, and treated the carriers of these tumours as incarnations of the same, immortal individual. And they started using those radioluminescent pigments, along with samples of uranium, to create a tradition of magic, in the terms described above. Of course, handling radioactive materials so carelessly risks radiation poisoning and cancer—but cancer is the whole subject of their cult, not something they fear! Sometimes, individuals may die to a cancer turned malignant, but as long as the transmissible cancers live on, those lives are not lost.
The resources of the Cancrioth
So, the Falcresti cryptarchs believed the Cancrioth to be their equal and opposite, secret aristocrats who ran the Mbo from behind the scenes. Even certain Mbo characters, like Tau at the depths of their despair, are disgusted by the thought that the Cancrioth were secretly intervening to manage things, rather than simple Oriati goodness:
“When the Maia invaded, and we thought we’d embraced them into peace, why, it was probably the fucking Cancrioth that set the beetles on their heartland crops! When we appealed to our common decency to stop the displacement of the jungle people, it was probably the fucking Cancrioth who bribed the migrants to turn back! And how about Taranoke, hm? Were you a Cancrioth breeding experiment? Maybe it was a game for them. Maybe one of them bet another, oh ho, watch, I’ll turn the fierce Maia into pineapple-eating sluts!”
But there is no evidence Tau is right. From what we actually see of the Cancrioth, their powers are highly limited. Their ship is ancient, overly large, and its diverse crew is not enough to run it properly. They are constantly low on water, and the loyalties of the crew shift between the different Onkos. The ‘shadow ambassador’ Baru was tracking, who we now refer to as the Womb, probably was not actually doing any spy shit after all. They have an alliance with an actual Oriati spymaster, but there’s no sign they’re actually in control. Eternal is sailing around looking—like everyone—for Abdumasi Abd, so they can recover his tumour, but meeting little success.
What of the times when the Cancrioth does wield influence? In Tau’s flashback ‘Story About Ash’ (which turns out to be a story-within-a-story, related to Baru near the end of the book), a sorcerer comes to Prince Hill—not actually a member of the Cancrioth, but using their methods—alongside a mob seeking the deaths of the Falcresti guests, Torrinde and Farrier. This sorceror does the flashy radioluminescent stuff, but they also demonstrate a strange immunity to pain, which is not explained. If we wished to give a scientific explanation, we might suppose she was on drugs, or had surgery.
Another time is of course the Brain passing on samples of the Kettling, though the Womb is emphatic that the Cancrioth did not create the disease. And the final time is the end of the book, when the Brain—who has herself cast in bronze—becomes a messianic figure for the anti-Falcrest war movement.
And their boat? Eternal is described as almost implausibly enormous, labyrinthine, and junk-rigged with eight masts, about 400 feet long (120 metres). A ship of this size has plenty of historical basis, particularly in the treasure ships of Zheng He, of China’s Ming dynasty, which had up to nine masts. The largest of Zheng He’s ships has been estimated at 135 metres by 55 metres; they would not have been particularly manoeuvrable, and nor is Eternal (Baru discerns some technical notes about its metacentre at one point).
For all its size, Eternal cannot compete with Falcrest’s torpedoes, copper hulls, and incendiary weapons. It only survives its one battle by the intervention of a second Falcresti warship in its defense. The Cancrioth are rich, and weird, but not particularly powerful players, except insofar as what they represent. Much of the book is spent trying to prevent Eternal from being sunk.
A Bryn of little faith
So, what do I make of the Cancrioth now I know better what’s being done with them? Previously, I thought of them as a sort of intrusion of overtly fantastical elements into a relatively grounded story. I have come around: I think the Cancrioth are compelling characters, as much as the others in the book, and that a cancer/radiation cult is not much more a stretch than what takes place in Falcrest. This book feels, to history, like a carefully-composed chiaroscuro painting vs. a photograph of nothing in particular. It’s not that the painting portrays something overtly unrealistic, but it is all arranged as a novel, an exciting story full of emotional swerves and character drama and secrets, taking artistic liberties where it needs… rather than simply repeating the banal repetitive messiness of much of history.
At the end of the book, Seth comments in an author’s note on both the Cancrioth, and the new society briefly glimpsed at the end:
In the acknowledgments to the last book I cautioned the reader that stranger ways of life than the Cancrioth’s exist in Baru’s world. We have now received a small glimpse into one of those strange ways. As ever, I leave the question of supernatural power versus scientific unknown in your hands. But I admit I am particularly proud of this one: it gives me special delight to invent things which probably could happen on Earth, had things gone a different, stranger way.
I am actually pretty into this! It just took me a bit to readjust. It’s funny—it seems now that each book addresses the reservations I had with the previous.