I read The Monster Baru Cormorant. (Previously, I read The Traitor Baru Cormorant.)

There’s a lot to say, much of which will of course be comparison and contrast with the previous book. In many ways, it turns into quite a different kind of story - a kind of early modern fantasy cold war spy story. Some of it seems like an improvement, other parts a loss of what made the first book so compelling? But in the process of writing this post, I’ve become increasingly fond of the book. I am definitely eagerly awaiting the third book in the series, and as ever it motivates an awful lot of thought.

This isn’t really a structured review, building to an overall evaluation of the book’s project. It’s more a placing-down of various things I was left thinking about when I finished Monster. Some of it will try to evaluate, some of it will be more like ‘meta’ i.e. descriptive/interpretive (though not necessarily anything particularly hard to draw out, since I’m also partly writing this for an audience that hasn’t read the book). Necessarily, there will be extensive spoilers for both books!

Also it’s twice as long as the last post. It’s 10k words. You’re warned. I may cut up the individual subheadings into their own posts when I migrate this to Github.

At the beginning of Traitor, there was 'a promise’: this is true, you know because it hurts. Now, the promise has changed to a question: 'if something hurts, does it make it true?’

Monster picks up right where the first book left off - in fact, overlapping slightly, presenting the execution of Tain Hu, who (despite being dead) thankfully retains a heavy presence throughout the rest of the book. Baru, as a result of a head injury at the end of the previous book, is experiencing the symptoms of 'split brain’ or 'callosal syndrome’, although this isn’t fully revealed until later in the book. In her chapters, the book narrates from the perspective of the right side of Baru’s brain. This part of Baru can only perceive things on her left, except for one brief episode where she’s poisoned and the two sides of her brain are linked while she undergoes a seizure, and a few other points where the other side of her brain (which apparently now understands itself as Tain Hu) expresses itself through right-aligned text. Which is an interesting device - more on that later.

Injury or not, now she’s a 'cryptarch’ (the term 'cryptarchy’, meaning 'rule by secrets’, was raised in the first book but not the title 'cryptarch’). Because she killed Tain Hu rather than allow her to be held as a hostage, she’s theoretically not under the other cryptarchs’ control and free to execute her plan to bring down the Masquerade. In this book, then, we’re hoping to see what that plan actually entails: Baru has sacrificed so many people in order to get to this position, now she has to make good on it. Somehow.

There are a number of changes. Overall, it doesn’t feel like as tightly focused a book (not only because it ends on a cliffhanger). It seems to be setting up to be another 'trilogy in two parts’: the first book posed certain questions, and brought them to a head in the extremely powerful and troubling ending. In theory this book ends at another decisive point (Baru has come into contact with the 'Cancrioth’) but it doesn’t feel nearly as significant a point as the death of Tain Hu. The first book felt like it was unfolding until you could see it all come together in one whole, dreadful picture, but this book feels like it’s more of a series of events that have been cut off at a somewhat arbitrary point, leaving a number of plot threads hanging. Even what seemed like it was to be a decisive character moment near the end - Baru deciding to put her life on the line in a duel rather than allow her parents to join the long, long list of people she’s sacrificed - is interrupted by the intrusion of other parts of the plot.

The perspective is also not as tightly linked to Baru in this book, but frequently jumps around to other third-person limited perspectives - and occasionally for some reason switching to first-person for Xate Yawa’s chapters. (You could suppose that this choice of pronoun suggests that she’s the narrator for the rest of the story - but in Baru’s chapters, first person is pretty much only used by the Tain Hu-identified side of her brain, which has a very different perspective to Xate Yawa!)

Introducing… the Oriati Mbo!

A fair amount of this book is spent towards developing the Oriati Mbo, the other great power in the setting which rivals Falcrest. The Mbo seems to be broadly West African in its cultural inspirations, wildlife etc. - made quite explicit by the frequent use of the term 'griot’. Unlike Falcrest, a young empire on the rise, the Mbo claims a very long more or less contiguous history, guided by a semi-religious philosophy around a concept called 'trim’, which places maintaining good relations between people as the highest virtue. To the main Oriati viewpoint character, the Prince Tau-indi Bosoka, the world at large reflects the state of peoples’ trim: when there are discord and secrets between them and their friends, it is mirrored in the worsening state of the war with Falcrest. At other times Oriati philosophy sounds very similar to deontological ethics, when for example it speaks of treating people as ends, not means. Other Oriati characters (including some expatriates and defectors) believe in Trim to a greater or lesser degree. Aminata, for example, found it stifling.

The Mbo is not presented as some kind of communist utopia by any means, but it’s definitely presented as a vastly nicer place to live than anywhere conquered by Falcrest (albeit from the eyes of royalty, and with hints that things are not quite so splendid for the less powerful), or even Aurdwynn from the last book. It’s made clear that we only see a narrow part, and the Mbo is a very culturally varied federation, and one which prides itself on assimilating those who come to invade it over the years, on abolishing slavery, on overthrowing the 'Cancrioth’. It has a trinary gender system, with men, women and 'lamen’ who use 'they’ pronouns under the translation convention, and gender is not assigned at birth, but opted into voluntarily. Our viewpoint Oriati character is a laman 'prince’ (one of a number of authorities who are raised from birth to administrate the Mbo, but don’t seem to be hereditary?). Unlike Falcrest, it’s not entirely clear what material consequences holding a particular gender has in the Mbo, except for some hints about the traditional duties and role of lamen.

The plot of this book is driven by the prospect of a potentially apocalyptic war between Falcrest and the Mbo. For the cryptarchs on the Falcresti side, in particular, it’s believed that if Falcrest is unable to 'digest’ the Mbo in their progress towards 'total causal closure’ over the entire world, they seem convinced that humanity will inevitably collapse back to primordial ooze. Here is Cosgrad Torrinde, on his way to becoming a Cryptarch:

“We’re going to lose!” He began to weep in quiet sighing bursts. “I can’t understand you, you’re all too old and complicated, I’m too young and simple and Farrier’s going to have his way, and he’ll fuck it up, and we’re going to lose! Back into the silt and the ooze! The end of humanity!”

We learn this time that about twenty years prior to the events of the book, when Baru was a child, the Mbo attempted to slap down Falcrest’s expansion - only to lose the 'Armada War’, cementing Falcrest’s hold on the major sea trade in the region. Now… it’s the Cold War, basically. There are no nukes, but open warfare is expected to lead to millions of deaths due to disease, 'demographic weapons’, and biological warfare. The Falcresti cryptarchs, moreover, are not confident of their chances to conquer the Mbo. Here we see Baru and Farrier play a game that attempts to imagine the outcome of the war:

He attacked Oriati Mbo with all his powers. Schools to seduce the young. Banks to issue loans, loans to put the Oriati into debt, debt to give him an excuse to seize their land and property. He built toll roads and canals for exclusive trade. He gave his allies inoculations against disease. He brutalized the Oriati currencies with counterfeiting and debasement, flooding their continent with fake money so they would turn to the stable, reliable Falcresti fiat note as their trade coin.

It was precisely how he had captured Taranoke.

It failed utterly.

The students in his schools could not be isolated from their families and communities: they rejected Incrasticism. The banks could not repossess the collateral of failed loans, because debtors’ neighbors bailed them out. The toll roads and canals were captured by local governments and opened to free trade until they were as crowded and slow as all the rest. Inoculations worked well, except that the inoculated were shunned and shamed for not sharing their immunity. When one of the four Oriati currencies foundered, another grew more valuable, as if the currencies were rabbits and foxes and wolves, one’s misfortune another’s opportunity.

The Mbo absorbed his attacks. At the end of the game Falcrest was more part of the Mbo than the Mbo of Falcrest.

The Mbo, however, has learned from the Armada war that it can’t readily destroy Falcrest either. So instead, both fight proxy wars and build their spy networks on various islands and countries, seeking to build influence and gain strategic positions. The book is split into three sections, each titled 'The Fall of {some place}’; two of them are islands where this cold war is playing out in various ways.

To me, the Mbo were a compelling, believable culture, and one I enjoyed spending time in. I hope they continue to be developed as much as Falcrest - we are told over and over how overwhelmingly complex their society is, but I still want to see it. The Cancrioth, on the other hand, feel rather less compelling, but more on that later.

And back to Falcrest

I complained of the last book that the cryptarchs seemed too powerful, too unified - that in a real empire there was no omniscient guiding will but a struggle of many different factions caught up in an impersonal logic. I’m glad this book takes a similar view: the Falcrest we see is rife with internal factions and struggles. There is the 'Throne’, with a figurehead Emperor and a cabal of cryptarchs; there is Parliament; there are the largely-women naval officers; there are the institutions like the Metademe (eugenics authority). Each of them is acting with its own interests, and trying to maintain its power over the other groups, and most of these groups are themselves explicitly divided.

Far from holding the secrets of absolute rule, the cryptarchs themselves are divided as to how to achieve their ambitions. Baru arrives in the middle of an intra-cryptarch conflict: on one side, we have her 'patron’ Cardine Farrier, who believes anyone can be conditioned into a loyal servent of Falcrest, with his grooming of Baru as an exemplary example. As far as the Oriati are concerned, he pins his hope on social manipulations to provoke civil war. On the other is his rival Cosgrad Torrinde, the arch-eugenicist who wants to find a way to surgically transplant behavioural traits. Torrinde is sort of an Ozymandias-from-Watchmen sort of guy, cultivating a 'perfect’ body, although these pretensions are constantly undermined.

This is an interesting perspective on the nature-vs-nurture debate. Torrinde believes in intrinsic biological natures, which are immutable up to surgical intervention. Farrier believes anyone can be shaped into any sort of subjectivity by appropriate means. But both their philosophies are oriented towards control: whether a person is shaped by nature or nurture, the true objective is to actively manipulate these forces. The feeling the reader gets is that, whichever one of them is right about the forces that shape a human, hopefully neither of them will ever find out.

Then, there are a sort of younger generation of cryptarchs. By tradition, every Cryptarch is held in check by a hostage at the time of their 'ascension’: for Baru, it was of course supposed to be Tain Hu. The Empire will reveal it has cause to execute this person (for homosexuality, perhaps, or disability) and then, at the last minute, grant an exceptional stay of 'justice’ - which can of course be revoked at any time. The threat to the hostage from the others keeps each cryptarch from pursuing their own designs. Baru is not the first to kill her hostage, but it’s noted that those who do tend to be short-lived.

At first, we meet Apparitor, who is secretly Svir, a prince of the Stakhieczi (a mountain nation bordering Aurdwynn that featured in the previous book). He’s held in check by the threat against his boyfriend, an admiral in the navy. (More on the navy later! There’s a lot to talk about there.) Before long they are joined by Xate Yawa, the judge and torturer who was being cultivated as a cryptarch herself during the previous book, at the same time as Baru. Her hostage is her brother Xate Olake, who lost his mind and awaits trial as a traitor.

Yawa, like Baru, aspires to save her homeland, and has been extremely ruthless in pursuit of this aim. Starting from extreme poverty, she hated the capricious dukes as much as the new Falcresti rulers, and was appalled when the Falcresti found it convenient to preserve the aristocracy. Both Baru and Yawa have plans to try and transform Aurdwynn, and both see the other as a dangerous and thoroughly untrustworthy obstacle, the other’s efforts towards a similar aim as scheming for power and influence. Both of them intend to betray one of their colleagues to the neighbouring Stakhieczi in order to see their plans through: Baru wants to sell Svir, and Yawa wants to sell Baru to restore the “Necessary King”’s image of strength. For Baru, trying to help Aurdwynn is vital for her self-image: if she cannot hold on to the idea that she’s fulfilling her duty to Tain Hu her whole self-justification collapses. For Yawa, it was her whole motivation all along.

Cancriwhat, now?

And then this is where things get kind of wacky. Farrier and Torrinde dispatch Baru to track down the 'Cancrioth’, a cult who worship uranium and cancer, supposedly abolished by the Oriati hundreds of years prior. The rumours suggest the Cancrioth can transfer tumours between their members (their slogan translating to 'it grows in me’), and it’s even believed that human minds can be transmitted with them, conferring a form of immortality. They supposedly have a great ability to manipulate the growth of tumours, shaping them into 'horns’ growing out the eye socket. To Farrier, revealing the Cancrioth will be the tool he needs to draw the Mbo into civil war. To Torrinde, the Cancrioth’s powers to manipulate flesh are precisely what he’s been seeking in his eugenic experiments: it will be possible to surgically implant discipline and obedience. Baru, meanwhile, smells another opportunity in the Cancrioth: by provoking various powers to attack Falcrest at once, notably the Cancrioth, she could utterly destroy the whole Falcresti civilisation and get her revenge.

She had her opportunity. She could at last point to a single ultimate goal for her work. She would draw Falcrest into war with Oriati Mbo; she would coax and unite and convince the Stakhieczi to invade from the north. And as these two wars destroyed the trade engine that turned in the Ashen Sea, she would secure the absolute the annihilation of the Masquerade’s power. The Mask would leave Taranoke. The Mask would leave Aurdwynn.

And if their works were all undone with their departure… if the secrets of inoculation were lost, and the great roads overrun by banditry, and plague left to sweep the world, and babies abandoned in the wind, and the winter given to scurvy, and a portion of the good and great taken each year by a simple tooth abscess… then so be it.

The end. The ruin of everything. A great jet of blood across the face of history. Wasn’t that what she’d promised Tain Hu?

We’ll come back to the question of what it means for Falcrest to fall in a bit.

Given how resolutely non-magical the rest of the book has been, the Cancrioth sounded kind of ridiculous to me. So I went through most of the book half-expecting there would be a considerably more down-to-earth explanation when the truth is revealed than a cult of uranium-powered tumour wizards. There are hints in that direction - at one point the characters question whether the Cancrioth is even real. But it turns out… no, they’re real and they do all that. They even implant tumours into a whale, which take on a humanoid shape, making it obedient to humans, somehow!

Behind the fin, a bony tumor ruptured the creature’s back. The growth ran down along its spine halfway to the tail. At first Baru thought it was a huge barnacle, or an infection, but no barnacle gleamed that unnatural bone-white color, sun-bleached and sterile: no infection could be so solid. The tumor had erupted from within the beast. A tumor of bone. And although the tumor knobbed and festered with hideous spines and bulbous growths, it wept no pus, the wound was clean, the skin knotted tight with scar tissue around the extrusion, even the contours of the tumor had been streamlined by the flow of water.…

The creature rolled lazily to bare its passing flank. A tremendous white eye-shape, blank, empty, gazed on Baru: beneath it was a single black eye, keen, aware. For a moment great teeth glimmered at her in a carnivore yawn.

Embedded in the tail end of that tumor was a grinning human skull. Its lower jaw subsumed into the flesh. Its eyes filled with furry, swollen bone.

The Cancrioth are imagined by the cryptarchs to be their own Oriati analogue, shepherding their society to provide stability for thousands of years despite general revulsion from the people who nominally overthrew them in order to found the Mbo. Is there anything to this? What we actually know by the end of the book is: the Cancrioth are real, that people like Tau are aware of their existence, that they have a presence in an Oriati embassy on a fairly insignificant island, that they can condition prospective members to faint whenever they’re mentioned, and that they have a very large ship with a lot of cannons, and therefore presumably some large degree of industrial power. Either they or some other part of the Oriati has the power to unleash a disease called the Kettling, which seems like it’s probably acute radiation poisoning (n.b. someone later suggested it’s more like ebola). The Cancrioth also have a ritual by which they claim to sever Tau from the bonds of trim. But we have little idea of their aims.

At the back of the book, there’s a short note which offers real-world justifications for the more out-there elements of the story, and here Seth Dickinson appeals to 'immortal’ cell lines like those infamously taken from Henrietta Lacks, and the possibility of transmission of cancer in certain circumstances. It is true that tumours can be large and visible. Even so, going from a very grounded fantasy to a culture of people who routinely transfer and deliberately reshape tumours, and can control whales, felt like something of a jolt: suddenly we were in less of a 'history but with different cultures’ story and more of a 'fantasy/horror’ story. Mostly, with the Cancrioth… I feel disappointed, I guess. It feels like an intrusion: this had so far been a story about social systems and power and economics, and through that it had powerful ways to reflect on our own world. The Cancrioth felt like an intrusion from a more standard fantasy story, the sudden arrival of wizards.

And like, in many ways, I rather enjoyed that the Oriati Mbo’s openness was a foil to the scheming and secrets in every corner of Falcrest. To suggest that they are secretly the pawns of a wizard cult from a sword and sorcery novel seems to rather undermine them. (Incidentally, a slightly odd part of the author’s note at the end of the book, Dickinson cautions the reader that neither Falcrest nor the Mbo are neutral observers, and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Cancrioth’s 'practices’. But as far as the narrative is concerned, they are never anything but a menace.)

Let’s talk about Tain Shir

So that’s the new impetus behind the plot. Among the cryptarchs, everyone wants to find the Cancrioth, for one reason or another, and get what they want out of this situation of impending war.

What about everyone else? The newly roaming viewpoint lets us revisit a lot of old characters, even when they’re not directly interacting with Baru.

Indeed, everything starts to be woven much more together into one grand metaplot. Tain Hu, we learn, had a cousin, Tain Shir (the illegitimate daughter of Xate Olake no less), who had been going through a similar process of grooming by Farrier before Baru’s time. Tain Shir went rogue under some mysterious circumstances involving the Cancrioth and a jungle war, no longer obedient to Farrier - but she was the one who was working for Farrier at the beginning of the first book, when Baru’s dad Salm was supposedly executed as a first, entirely deliberate step to shape Baru’s subjectivity. Near the end of the book we get confirmation that Salm is actually still alive, and Tain Shir kidnapped him rather than having him executed.

Tain Shir is recruited by Admiral Ormsment, one of the many people Baru fucked over in the previous book. Ormsment stages a mutiny, taking a small number of ships to hunt down Baru; Tain Shir goes with her. Just about all the other viewpoint characters are connected to Baru in some greater or lesser way: people she’s betrayed, people she knew as a child and hear rumours of her latest deeds. The exception is Tau, who did not know her until the events of this book, but did know Cardine Farrier and Cosgrad Torrinde as younger men when they were offered as hostages to the Mbo.

Of all the characters, though, Tain Shir makes the most definite impression. So let’s talk about Tain Shir.

Baru is resolutely a non-combatant hero; she basically never fights, instead winning her victories through economic manipulation, blackmail, persuasion and so forth. She repeatedly notes that, if she ever got in a fight with a soldier, the soldier would win - indeed, Falcresti marines, with the armour and discipline and incendiary weapons, basically never lose a fight in this book. Tain Shir is, by contrast, the kind of 'superpowered killing machine’ sort of character. Whenever she’s onscreen, she brutally massacres a bunch of people. She understands herself as 'free’, sort of how Tain Hu was free: refusing any complicity or authority categorically, and holding others to the same standard. Indeed, she taught Tain Hu that philosophy.

Frustrated with the adults, Shir carried Hu on horseback through the forest, and spoke to her of injustice, and showed her how to kill trapped animals without hesitation. Later I would discover that Hu remembered everything.

Hu remembered what Shir had said:

You must understand, no matter what anyone tells you, that you are free. In this moment you may do whatever you choose. No one can stop you. They can choose how to react to your choice, but they cannot stop the choice itself. This is freedom, understand? A knife in your hand. And you may do with it as you please.

When people teach you what you might and might not do—they are bridling you. They are taking your freedom away. Yes, the world has laws, which are consequences for your actions. But remember that there is nothing you cannot choose to do. Only consequences you fear to face.

If anyone ever tells you that they have no choice but to compromise, remember this. They are afraid.

But Tain Shir did eventually choose to serve a master, for a while, in Cardine Farrier. And she was the one who put down her own mother during the first failed Aurdwynni rebellion, on Farrier’s behalf. Now, later, she is looking for some sort of redemption and to rescue Tain Hu. When she learns that Tain Hu is already dead in her first encounter with Baru, and Baru talks about their relationship, she refuses to believe Baru’s love was genuine. And she starts planning to teach Baru a 'lesson’ about the nature of her methods and 'the world’. In order to do this, she leaves Baru alive:

She knew Tain Hu only briefly, in the girl’s childhood, but she thinks Baru the sort that the duchess Vultjag might love. A shark-sleek woman of brooding intention, a danger and a lure. Like a dark stone beneath rough water. If you pass close to her then you might tear yourself.

Probably Hu did love her.

What Shir does not believe is the possibility that Baru Cormorant ever loved Tain Hu in turn.

So she let Baru go. Not as mercy but as punishment. For in her flight Baru will reveal to Tain Shir what she treasures and what she hopes to achieve and that which she strives to protect. And then Tain Shir will take those things from her. Do you see, O ambitious one? The world does not answer to you. The code you follow will not grant you what you seek.

The nature of this lesson:

Tain Shir is here to teach a lesson. A lesson about the costs of manipulation, and the hubris of forcing others to pay those costs for you, and the lie that you can serve a master today without also ceding to him all your tomorrows.

The first attempt at imparting this lesson comes across like something out of a computer game (LISA, maybe?): Tain Shir captures a character, an Aurdwynni cook who Baru had tried to save, and confronts Baru with the choice: Baru can die, or the cook, making it clear that if Baru chooses to go on, she will escalate the killings through all the people Baru cares about: her current lover, her parents. She forces Baru to confront the logic: if she was willing to sacrifice Tain Hu, who was more important to her than anyone, for the sake of her mission, who wouldn’t she sacrifice? Xate Yawa refers to this as an 'unlimited line of ethical credit’ that Baru has granted herself. And Baru, despite imagining all the horrible things Tain Shir plans to do, convinces herself that the right thing to do is to sacrifice the cook and escape to regain the power to stop Tain Shir.

Tain Shir, instead of killing the cook, cuts two of Baru’s fingers off.

So what is the lesson? When Tain Shir threatens her, Baru pleads with her that this isn’t necessary, this is not a forced situation like with Tain Hu where the entire Masquerade was forcing the situation on her.

“It’s not the same,” Baru protested. “Those terms were set by the Throne. A power that holds the world—I couldn’t change the terms. You, though, you could walk away right now. Please, Shir.” The name a thorn in her tongue. “I remember you. I remember when I saw you at Farrier’s wool stand. There’s no reason you have to do this.”

“I’m not doing this,” Shir said, with terrible distance. “You are. You set the terms. This is your choice, it is the shape of you, to spend people for power. I am your teacher now. I am going to force this choice on you. Here, and in the next place you go, and the next, and the next, I will force this choice on you forever. And so you will live in a world governed by the laws you have chosen.”

So, again, what is the lesson here? That extremely violent and ruthless strangers will do cruel things to you sometimes? No, I guess it’s an attempt to make personal the consequences Baru has so far been able to turn away from, or excuse? To make a link between discarding someone for advantage and personal pain? It’s strange, though - I am left wondering what it’s all for, why Tain Shir doesn’t simply kill Baru the way she kills so many other minor functionaries and spies and soldiers along the way. Does she hope to turn Baru into something else, as the term 'lesson’ might imply? To make her into someone truly capable of betraying Throne, rather than carrying out Farrier’s will even as she tells herself she’s working to bring it all down? More likely it is a matter of making Baru suffer all the more, a kind of total philosophical destruction of what she is.

In any case, Shir’s lesson is perhaps part of what leads Baru to a theory, later, of power:

Her eyes came back to Baru. “Yes. It’s the riddle about the ministers and the antidote. Three ministers taste poison; one lowly secretary has a dose of antidote. Each minister demands the antidote, threatening the secretary with blackmail, sterility, or violence. The riddle is, whose power wins? Which threat compels the secretary to obey? I’m very curious, Baru, for your answer.”

Baru had actually come up with a very good answer: the only correct answer, she thought, the pithing needle which pierced the riddle and found the truth within.

The entire riddle was an Imperial trap. It put the question of power upon the actors trapped in the poisoned dinner: it set them against each other, these ministers and secretaries, and asked which of them held the “true” power. And so it concealed the agency which had arranged for these ministers to be poisoned in a room with one bottle of antidote. It distracted responsibility from the one who had arranged the scenario of the riddle.

Power was not the province of those who made choices. Power was the ability to set the context in which choices were made.

Perhaps, then, the lesson is: you are not really gaining power through these 'forced’ sacrifices. You are still firmly under the control of the one who put you up to the choice.

At the very end of the book, we get an unexpected twist. The very first motivating piece of suffering that Baru underwent, the first 'lesson’ from Farrier that suffering is inevitable, was the death of her father Salm. At the time, it was unclear whether this was a deliberate arrangement by Farrier or a 'normal’ act of Incrastic brutality with no greater motive. Now, it’s revealed that - for some fucking reason! - Salm isn’t actually dead:

And if Baru fails to learn, then Shir will retrieve from the place where she once hid him the man who she was tasked to capture and vanish on Taranoke fourteen years ago.

Baru’s father Salm. The very wheel and shaft of Baru’s mission. The man Baru has resolutely believed must be dead. For she has swallowed Cairdine Farrier’s protocols of grief, which do not permit any hope of reunion. And she has made death and loss the feet she walks upon.

Tain Shir will break those feet from under Baru and cast her down into the ash of those she treads upon.

This felt like a retcon to me, but perhaps that just reflects how firmly I’ve identified with Baru’s perspective. I can sort of understand Tain Shir’s motive, but why would Farrier bother to keep Salm alive? What advantage would it bring to be like, surprise, that time I made you think we’d executed your dad, we didn’t - a new hostage, if it came to it? It would seem as likely to make Baru do everything in her power to tear him down as to keep her loyal.

On the system(at)ic shaping of desire, and its ethical implications

Speaking of those protocols of grief: a recurring theme, more explicit than even in the first book, is the narratives that Baru has internalised about the inevitability of her suffering. She gets together with another woman in this book, the diver Ulyu Xe, but tells herself that the relationship is doomed, and that Xe will inevitably end up dead. At one point she even briefly hallucinates that Xe has been killed.

Other characters - notably, the Clarified agent Iscend, and Xate Yawa, who are both associated with Cosgrad Torrinde - speak of Baru as a victim of the 'Farrier Process’ of subconscious conditioning and association. Baru constantly fears that she is, unknown even to herself, under Farrier’s control - but she remains uncertain of the exact parameters of the Farrier Process, and what it’s made of her.

This is part of a broader meditation on how our subjectivities and intentions are shaped by social systems. I’ll quote one of my favourite passages of the book:

THERE had been a moment in the battle at Sieroch when Baru understood everything.

An arrow pierced a shield and Baru saw the forces that conspired to kill the man beneath. Not merely the velocity of the arrow and the thickness of the shield; not merely the man’s discipline, to keep his shield fixed in place as his brother died beside him; but, also, the lines of causality that crushed down upon this instant and forced it into the pierced-eyeball shape of itself.

She saw the mines that yielded the ore that went to the steel furnaces and then to the smith and the fletcher to make the arrowhead. She saw the old-growth trees cut down for shepherding pasture so that the people could sell wool in the new markets, the old trees replaced by softer younger wood, that softer wood made into the shield.

She saw the ancient collision of Stakhieczi desperate for farmland and Maia desperate for grazing land and the warrior traditions produced by those wars and sustained in the villages by centuries of raiding, traditions which taught the man how to hold his shield in the phalanx, and how to brace against arrows, and how to keep his position and his stance as his brother retched in the mud with an arrow up his armpit.

She saw a man’s life calculated by the thrashing manypartite engine whose eternal components were enigmatic and half-glimpsed like the limbs of behemoth kraken surfacing in fog and whose outputs were nothing other than changes in the design of the machine itself: changes that were people, for the machine was of man and yet no man within it could discern its entire shape.

This story, too, she sees as a product of this machine. Unable to move directly against her due to circumstance without provoking a diplomatic incident, and guided by Tain Shir, Ormsment moves to threaten Baru’s parents. And Baru recognises herself as a piece of the machine:

The power is yours, Baru thought. It is yours. The engine that manufactures all things is driven by the past: by hope and by sorrow, by fear and by rage, by all the passions and calculations of our past it conjures up the mechanisms that drive us forward into the carved channels of our futures.

And you have gone into my past, Admiral, and found the piece of the engine that drove me down this channel.

How can I go to Falcrest to outlaw the death of fathers if it will kill my last father?

This line of thought precipitates Baru finally breaking from the pattern she’s followed so far: urged on by the part of her brain that sees itself as Tain Hu, by Tau claiming that this is a true test of whether she’s taken on the philosophy of trim, and by an excuse (to appease her 'rational’, calculating side) that the duel will probably be interrupted, Baru comes forward to duel to protect her parents.

On that matter of trim - this draws on an earlier challenge to her broadly utilitarian moral philosophy from Tau:

She was not thinking like an Oriati, the people who for decades had been tricked and exploited by the Masquerade. What could you do to resist that trickery? You could stop acting in what seemed to be your own calculated self-interest. You could avoid doing what was necessary, because then Falcrest could manipulate you by changing the terms of necessity. You could focus, instead, on basic goodness, an inflexible moral code: be honest, be kind, be charitable.

Was goodness still good if you hewed to it out of tactical necessity? Was there, Baru wondered, any difference between being good and pretending to be good for your own gain, if you took the same actions in the end? Was there any difference between telling the truth unconditionally, and deploying the truth in service of your agenda, if you told the same truth?

Maybe the Oriati thought so.

Maybe the difference between truth-for-itself and tactical truth was the only difference that mattered. Maybe the most crucial and subtle distinction in life was the difference between someone who was truly good and someone playing at goodness to gain power.

So this stuff. This is the really good stuff, the stuff that makes me really fond of this book. An intervention on ethics that takes seriously the problem of like, someone else has all the power, that the way we act is like, conditioned by much larger forces. You could read this as a deontological or virtue ethicist critique of consequentialism or just like, a strategic question as Baru frames it here, a question of 'metaethics’ where you want to be sure that future you acts in accordance with your values at the moment you’re thinking about it, when other powerful people and social systems would very much like to have you act according to their interests and logic instead.

We never get to see how that duel would have played out, though, because the author decides that this is the point where the people infected with the 'Kettling’ should show up in the embassy. Perhaps it doesn’t matter: the choice to stand was the decisive moment, and after all, Baru does have to survive to the next book and she would almost certainly have lost the duel, whatever she thought would happen.

What does it mean to bring down the system that runs the world?

In the middle third of the book, Baru encounters an archipelago called the Llosydanes which is a 'cultural preserve’ created by Falcrest. After Falcrest takes over, the islands are no longer self-sufficient, but now fish and farm a date crop, with which they trade with the Falcresti for necessary resources. This is a tenuous existence, and allegedly they practice infanticide as a measure of population control.

Upon arriving on this island, Baru sets to work, quickly working out how she could upset the economy in a way that would rapidly let her transform the Falcresti money stored in a local bank into local currency and power. She hopes that the disruption she caused, a means to an end, will be absorbed when the rumours she spread turn out to be false. Unfortunately, it does not quite turn out that way: a battle between Ormsment’s ship and some Oriati ships results in the disruption escalating into a riot which destroys much of the date crop. (Still, Baru works on her project: she leaves her fortune behind as a trust to build trade with the Stakhieczi, depending on her various other infrastructure projects to empower northern Aurdwynn to benefit as trade intermediaries).

Anyway, the point of going into this part of the story is: Falcrest makes the societies it annexes dependent on it, just as it is dependent on its territories for power. If Baru successfully destroyed the Masquerade, the people on this island would starve. She ponders, at one point, after a conversation on the Llosydane practices of infanticide and 'manning’ (ritual execution of adolescent boys who fail a test of whether they can participate in society without giving in to honour-driven violence):

And if she smashed Falcrest between the Oriati and the Stakhi—then what would happen to the Llosydanes?

Later, the conversation is revisited. Svir (Apparitor) describes what he imagines would happen if there was a war between Falcrest and the Mbo:

“Listen, listen.” He waved his fingers. “Say Falcrest can’t buy any more shit. No more great merchant fleets. No more trade ring. Take away that trade and you, uh, you get a lot of war, because if people can’t get what they need, they try to take it—”

“A ut li-en,” Iraji whispered, to Baru’s horror.

“—and then”—Apparitor flourished over the map, behold—“over the course of forty or fifty years, that’s how it happened with the Cheetah Palaces at least, those wars and raids lead to the destruction of most major cities. That’s, uh, that’s how it goes in a world where people take what they need, instead of trading for it. Then I’d expect plague, as refugees flee the violence, smallpox, measles, buboes, the Kettling. Then isolationism to hold back the plague, and five hundred years of chaos. The Palatine Collapse wiped out all complex interconnected civilization. I mean, it’s remarkable, it’s brilliant—” He belched articulately. “—in Falcrest we’ve got the entire known world hostage to our own economy. If we go down, so do they.”

A little later:

“They got along fine on their own,” Apparitor said, “but now they’re connected, like the Llosydanes, remember the fucking Llosydanes? Stars help them if the trade stops. They’ll all die. Everyone will die if the trade stops. Because everyone’s connected.”

Apparitor is, of course, a biased observer. To him, tired of all the intrique and violence, Falcrest collapsing like all the empires that came before is an inevitability. He just wants to run away.

Arguably, this doubt is the Farrier process at work, making Baru question that there is any way other than the Masquerade’s way, even as she works to destroy the Masquerade. And it is much the same with capitalism: as that one Mark Fisher quote that anyone remembers goes, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”.

Today, of course, just about everywhere is caught up in the capitalist world-system. The centuries-long project to dissolve the global peasantry and create a proletariat producing for global capital is all but complete. I would guess that basically nobody reading this is involved in subsistence agriculture. Even if they’re a farmer, they’re likely producing a narrow range of products for market. As Svir says in the quote above, they’re all connected.

It’s also true that empires have, historically, invariably fallen apart. I’ve seen a video that attempts to plot out on a map the rise and fall of various polities, at first in 1000 year intervals and then a year at a time. Obviously, it’s massively shaped by the biases of what gets recorded in written history or preserved archaeologically, and then what is considered important in today’s Eurocentric discipline, and further what is considered important by the handful of Reddit users who created the maps. Trying to create great monuments to prosperity is perhaps a disease of empires, which most of the people in world history happily did without, so the vast grey areas of the map don’t imply that nothing interesting is happening there! Even within the areas of the map that get described, the analytic frame categorises polities into a dubious schema of 'embryonic civilisation’ and 'advanced culture’. (The population count is far too precise to be justified). Still, in this empire-focused lens, we see a pattern: empires rise and consolidate land, then collapse into a mess of smaller polities, or occasionally last long enough to lose that territory to new empires. Sometimes the parts of the map that are covered by empires shrinks and goes back to grey.

The Palatine Collapse mentioned by Apparitor presumably refers to something a bit like the 'Late Bronze Age Collapse’, an ancient event in which most empires, cities and trade ceased. As Wikipedia puts it:

The palace economy of the Aegean region and Anatolia that characterised the Late Bronze Age disintegrated, transforming into the small isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages. The half-century between c. 1200 and 1150 BC saw the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, of the Kassite dynasty of Babylonia, of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and the Levant, and of the Egyptian Empire;[1] the destruction of Ugarit and the Amorite states in the Levant, the fragmentation of the Luwian states of western Asia Minor, and a period of chaos in Canaan.[2] The deterioration of these governments interrupted trade routes and severely reduced literacy in much of the known world.[3] In the first phase of this period, almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was violently destroyed, and many abandoned, including Hattusa, Mycenae, and Ugarit.[4]

Of course, an anarchist might see this whole course of events rather differently. Here Peter Gelderloos (who I had not finished reading at the time I first wrote this article) talks about the same events, in Worshipping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Development:

Assuming that we can understand systemic collapse in this light, I would like to suggest another factor (potentially the most important factor, although the data do not exist to prove this claim) for the Bronze Age collapse: internal rebellion and struggles for freedom.

I propose that we would attain a far more accurate view of history if, every time a state collapsed, we assumed rebellion was a principal cause, unless evidence existed for another cause. We know that states provoke resistance from their own subjects, and that struggles for freedom are universal (although visions of freedom and methods for attaining it are beyond any doubt historically and culturally specific). Too often, historians and archaeologists fabricate cheap mysteries, “Why did this great civilization suddenly collapse?,” because they refuse to accept the obvious: that states are odious structures that their populations destroy whenever they get the opportunity, and sometimes even when they face impossible odds.

The scholars of power are staring Ozymandias in the face. Beyond the anarchist intuition, which has proven accurate in its historical predictions enough times that anyone whose psyche is not integrally wrapped up with bootlicking should have taken note, we have a number of facts to back up this assertion. To start with, there are numerous documented examples of societies that overthrow state structures in order to organize themselves horizontally. Such records are typically from places like Amazonia or sub-Saharan Africa where anti-authoritarian popular cultures are conducive to the preservation of such histories.

But in other parts of the world, a shortage of evidence is not evidence that popular rebellions were not a major force of history. It is precisely the one factor that is least likely to leave archaeological evidence. It leaves no trace in climate records, it need not be preceded or even accompanied by any dramatic change in technologies and material remains, and the literate classes of pre-modern states are unlikely to put it down in writing. In fact, the disappearance of writing is a likely result of an anti-authoritarian revolution in a society in which written language is controlled by the elite.117 Neighboring states that witnessed such revolutions might also be unlikely to discuss and document a popular uprising because they themselves were assuredly afflicted by the same conflicts and dangers. Anyone who participates in radical movements today knows that revolutionary episodes are systematically downplayed or erased from the official histories, and this despite the fact that modern states command much more complicated means that allow them to recuperate radical histories, reframing them in a way that legitimates state power.118 Bronze Age states did not have such means at their disposal. The principal way for them to avoid fanning the flames of transregional rebellion would be to suppress the news.

Gelderloos goes on to speculate that the “Sea Peoples” (a group historically attested to only as raiders and invaders) may be a stateless people formed out of escaped slaves and “fragments of communities fleeing the warfare and slave-raiding of states”. Elsewhere, Gelderloos expresses a vision for a desirable future which, while not primitivist as such, would look quite like the collapse in the historical record.

What Baru grasps for, I guess, is some way out of the horrible choice she’s given: on the one hand, the Masquerade’s brutality and absolute domination; on the other hand, a world of disease, starvation and infanticide that she thinks is all they’ve left the world. Of course, this comes with a rather Hobbesian view of the difference between 'civilisation’ and 'nature’, presuming that the supreme sovereign power of the Masquerade is the only way that human needs can be met and a 'war of all against all’ avoided.

It’s going to be interesting to see what answer to this dilemma the third book offers, what vision of an alternative—which we might call communism!—could exist in this setting, which so honestly replicates the misery of our world. What Baru herself seems to be attempting to engineer, in her interventions in Aurdwynn and the Llosydanes for example, is a broadly capitalist economic system - but with no individual great imperial power like Falcrest. She seems to hope that trade could continue to take place for peoples’ benefit, without the accompanying force of a global superpower.

There hasn’t really been a period in the development of capitalism, to my knowledge, when trade and production hasn’t been accompanied by absolutely brutal, naked force. The wielders of that force changed: the European empires who build capitalism on the backs of vast dispossession and slavery were at least nominally overthrown (though their economic power over their former colonies did not exactly disappear), while the USA and Soviet Union grew to fight each other over who should reap the benefits of production… and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed, and the US became the undisputed superpower, but continued to perpetually wage wars to maintain a favourable world trade system, albeit mostly only ruling indirectly through means like the CIA and World Bank. And that’s only focusing on wars between countries: internally, every country enforces property rights with a police force, suppresses protest movements, exerts controls through more or less overt means. Is it possible to divorce trade from violence? It seems unlikely to me: what is money but a means to compel people to labour, under threat of starvation?

Returning to Baru Cormorant, there is little ambiguity about the role of commerce as a tool of conquest. Svir raises the same point, when he sees Baru’s orders for Aurdwynn:

“You’re a spider, you know that? A hairy little spider crawling underfoot at a picnic. Look at this! You’re opening the northerners to free trade, you’re integrating their shitty little economies with the world. Throwing them to the wolves—and after all that time you spent pretending to love them, too!”

“I am giving them access to fair markets, where they will sell what they have in plenty, and buy what is scarce, improving the lot of every last—”

“Ooh, I’m a feudal peasant, I just can’t wait to sell my shitty grain and skinny donkeys on the open market, ought to be fair competition with the Radascine Combine and their fields of golden plenty—”

“Once their economy values currency instead of land, the peasantry will be able to profit and save off their own labor instead of tithing their incomes for protection—”

“You are conquering Taranoke,” Apparitor said.

“What?” Baru snapped.

“This is how Itinerant conquered your home. You know that. You play the game with him every day. He opened the markets. He made it possible for everyone to sell everything they had in exchange for our scrip. The pageant of the rebellion is over. Now you execute the final bondage of Aurdwynn, when you force them to export their livelihoods to Falcrest.”

Baru might destroy Falcrest, but Aurdwynn would still be ruled by its ghost, in the form of the cruel laws of the market. Baru’s retort is to accuse Svir of defending feudalism, but I think he grasps something she doesn’t yet, about just how brutal the domination of this still-nascent capitalism will become.

In the na-vy…

Baru spent the vast majority of Traitor harshly suppressing her lesbian desire out of a thoroughly internalised belief that it would only lead to misery. This culminated in the execution of Tain Hu, which I went on at length about in the previous essay.

This time around, she gets to have a bit more fun. Not that it comes easy. She first gets together with one of the survivors of the massacred Aurdwynn rebellion, the diver and priestess Ulyu Xe - one of the very, very few characters in the book who is in any way sympathetic to Baru and her efforts. There’s a very believable scene of dissociating the hell out during sex with someone you actually quite like, in Baru’s case because of her ongoing grief over Tain Hu, which is a mood.

Later, Xe leaves, and Baru has a somewhat messy relationship with a prisoner, Shao Lune of the navy. Shao Lune defects from Ormsment’s mutiny early on, and Baru spends much of the book bribing her with slightly better conditions in return for information. Near the end of the long voyage, they get drunk together, exchange stories, and fuck. It seems that for Baru, getting off is now pretty heavily mixed up in the play of power:

Shao Lune had looked down at her with irritation and dismay, not amused or entertained by self-pity, but instead obviously turned off. Then she’d berated Baru, excoriated her for wanting to give up. Shao Lune would not be imprisoned and manipulated by a spineless self-pitying slug. Was Baru a spineless self-pitying slug? Did she have no will of her own?

Baru had tried to get up and get at her and that provoked Shao Lune’s merciless counterattack. Baru remembered the tremendous relief of having no control. She remembered her release, the climax she couldn’t reach with Ulyu Xe. She was pragmatically relieved to have that release, and she ought to be a little gleeful to have scored a Falcrest woman.

But she wasn’t proud.

Baru rubbed her aching face. Well. She had made—not a mistake, it hadn’t cost her anything, and at least she’d gotten laid. But she’d embarrassed herself. She was glad that she’d let Shao Lune make the advances, so she didn’t feel like a filthy rapist. Still, Shao was a prisoner, there was an inequity of power between them. Had Baru considered that carefully enough before she let herself be seduced?

Or was this another principle compromised?

I’m not sure I have a lot more to say about this. It’s like, well observed? Another layer on the big pile of ways Baru is a very fascinatingly fucked up person to have as our dear protag?

Baru is not the only person who gets to be gay in this book. (In fact, there aren’t a whole lot of straight people.) Svir, aka Apparitor, is also a gay guy, and one of the most immediately appalled by Baru’s apparently callous execution of Tain Hu:

“You don’t believe it,” he snarled. He’d hurt his hand on her face and now he was wringing it pathetically. “You don’t really believe all that Incrastic nonsense about degenerate mating—you can’t really believe it? A woman from Taranoke?”

“You and I,” she said, spitting blood, grinning at him red-toothed, “you and I will be great colleagues, don’t you think?”

“Tell me,” he said, pleading now, “that you don’t believe it?”

Apparitor’s own boyfriend, Lindon, is nominally appointed to a high position in the Navy. In fact, because the Navy officer corps is almost entirely women and because he’s disdained for his lack of combat experience, he has very little power at all. The gender balance of the Navy takes on a bigger role in this book: we learn, for example, that the power afforded Navy women (and the strict prohibitions against being gay in the Masquerade, of course) mean that a large portion of sex workers are men. In Aminata’s chapters, we get the perspective of a navy woman who employs sex workers:

Remember when you thought whores liked you in particular? Because you were kind, and you never beat the shit out of them if they didn’t perform? Give a woman a blackjack and a navy behind her and a man’s strength didn’t matter. And a lot of navy women liked to hit a man who couldn’t hit back.

But now Aminata could hear what he was really saying. It wasn’t I like you. It was, mam, please leave a tip, my pimp takes a big cut.

Another difference in gender norms in Falcrest is that it’s normative for men, not women, to wear makeup. When women occasionally do wear some makeup it’s described as a masculine touch.

The navy and its social roles - or at least those of its officers - get a lot more focus in this book in general. A point, frequently stated and otherwise left implicit, is that intrinsic gender differences are fake and the violence considered male will be carried out just as well by women, because really it’s violence of power. But Falcrest remains a patriarchal society, and its mostly-women navy is a suspect exception when most other institutions are ruled by men. At one point, Baru is even challenged by Shao Lune on failing to recognise the 'sexual dialectic’ at work:

“You’re taking the red man’s side, Apparitor’s side, against the navy. He’s Stakhi, and they’re a patrilineal culture. He’s an instrument of the sexual dialectic.”

“Oh, Captain, I don’t think the sexual dialectic has much to do with this—”

“Of course it does!” she crowed. “You child. Listen: Parliament doesn’t like the navy’s difficult women, doesn’t like us asking for fair pensions and seizing their trade ships for leverage. So Parliament asked the Emperor to put a man in the Empire Admiralty. To do that, to put Lindon Satamine in that post, Apparitor had to sabotage Ahanna Croftare’s chances. She worked her whole life for that post. And she lost it to Parliament’s stupid fears. If Croftare can’t get a fair chance, why should any woman?”

Baru thought the poor staff captain should try life as a Taranoki woman if she wanted to know about unfair sexual dialectics. But she sat down on the opposite side of the post, Shao’s slack chain in her fists.

What the result is for the narrative is that we can have all the classic tropes of stories about ships (Master and Commander and the like) but make it mostly involve women giving the orders and having the affairs and rivalries and so on. Which is quite a nice touch, I think.

Falcrest’s Navy is one of its major sources of power, but it’s subordinate to parliament - almost all the navy characters fear that the Falcresti Parliament will order a purge of the naval corps in the event that war breaks out, to bring the Navy back under control. For this reason, they attempt to hide prisoners who might precipitate such a war. I really like this element of like, different interests within a culture; it rings truthfully, right?

Of course, Falcrest’s Navy is also the instrument by which it carries out some of its most extreme violence. The Oriati use explosives, such as mines and cannon - but the Falcresti win by their incendiary weapons. The descriptions of people being burned to death, whether in a naval battle at the beginning or when Aminata orders a group of civilians burned to contain the spread of disease at the end, are where the book hits its most sickening, brutal points. And while the Marines are, in contrast to the officers, largely faceless sources of violence, the traumatic effect of inflicting violence is not ignored:

AMINATA watched them burn.

She had to watch. She had ordered this. It was her duty and that made it a weight she had to carry forever, these people who she’d watched chattering and flirting and planning their long ambitious lives, burning now, humiliated by the flame, stripped not just of flesh but of their dignity, screaming, screaming.

While she commanded marines on Lapetiare she’d led the taking of pirate ships, both true pirates (who mostly surrendered, but were very erratic) and Oriati privateers (who mostly fought, and were very disciplined). In the low compartments and long oar-banks of burning ships she’d fought with grenades and knives. She had definitely stabbed one man enough to kill him: slowly and in agony, she suspected, for it was a gut wound.

So she knew a little about death.

But everyone she’d killed on those ships had been a killer, too.

On Hara-Vijay, she watched her marines butcher families and children. She watched Burn fire lick across the courtyard of the Oriati embassy and claim the screaming Kyprananoki spattered in black blood. The marines on the roof with her seemed to go mad: some of them fell down trembling and refused to shoot. Some of them howled and laughed as they threw grenades. How could you bring yourself to kill children? Apparently you laughed. You laughed at the way their bones bent in the heat. You laughed at yourself because it was so easy that it became absurd.

I feel like, since I also am likely to write about agents of state power inflicting extreme, overwhelming violence on a defenceless enemy, I could pick up a lot from the way this book writes about it. They don’t dwell on the actual descriptions of how people burn, except for a few salient details, but on the emotional effect of witnessing it.

Aminata is a curious character---in many ways she’s painted as very naive, chasing after her 'best friend’ Baru and clinging to a rather childish fantasy of being assigned a ship, but at the same time she’s also a skilled torturer. An Oriati expatriate, she specialises in interrogating Oriati subjects through a sustained programme of psychological manipulation, which seems to be more or less a refinement/elaboration on a 'good cop, bad cop’ routine. She obeyed Farrier in intimidating Baru over her nascient lesbianism, but she kind of has a really obvious obsessive crush on her, a crush that drags her halfway around the world and turns her upside down trying to judge Baru’s loyalty. I dread to think what happens to her in the sequel.

Baru herself

Baru goes to pieces in this book. In the first book, she wrestled with doubts, made herself suffer unnecessarily - but also her arrogance was, in the whole, borne out. She staged a successful rebellion and sacrificed it, just as she planned all along. Her accounting wizardry transforms the nation.

In this book, she suffers. Her guilt over Tain Hu, and all the other people she killed. Her desperate needling and blackmailing of her comrades. Her physical injuries: the head injury, the fingers she loses. An increasing alcholism problem. Frequent hallucinations. Even when she causes financial chaos, it’s less of a grand tragedy and more of a farce.

Despite her best efforts, she somehow manages to get close to some people, by the end. Not for nothing does Tau say she has been demonstrating some of the ways of trim. And thanks to Tain Hu’s decision to come back and sacrifice herself, she has a chance to avoid simply being a pawn of the Masquerade until her miserable death.

Some sort of a conclusion

What then to make of Monster?

If it wasn’t for the Cancrioth, I would be saying: this is the book I wish I could write. This talks about all the things I want to think about, furnishes me with powerful metaphors, creates subtle and truthful characters, presents a brilliant, culturally rich early modern setting in all its brutality and fascination. To be honest, I still think that to a fair degree.

It’s going to be a hell of a task to stick the landing, though. It’s hard to evaluate this book, when it leaves so much unresolved. What possibilities are there?

I don’t think the ending will be happy, but nor do I think it will be straightforward. It would be a hell of a move to say: yes, everything should end in fire and blood, but I don’t really expect that to happen. Any more than NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth would end with the traumatised girl killing everyone on Earth.

The sequel is to be titled The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, which suggests a certain tone. Each book’s title has been kind of semi-ironic. In Traitor, she acts as a traitor to the Masquerade, but really she’s a traitor to her comrades in the fake rebellion she stages. In Monster, her ruthlessness is challenged from many contradictory quarters, but ironically it is the book where she’s learning to be less of a monster. I’m sure Tyrant won’t just be the story of how she falls to become an evil overlord, but something more interesting.

Anyway, for my part, I’m glad I can walk into fan discussions of these books now. They’re a hell of a thing.