Book Review

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Genre | Fantasy
Page #s | 399
Publishing Date | September 2015

Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up from the sand of her home and see red sails on the horizon.

The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They’ll conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She’ll swallow her hate, prove her talent, and join the Masquerade. She will learn the secrets of empire. She’ll be exactly what they need. And she’ll claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.

In a final test of her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. Aurdwynn kills everyone who tries to rule it. To survive, Baru will need to untangle this land’s intricate web of treachery – and conceal her attraction to the dangerously fascinating Duchess Tain Hu.

But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the first book in a trilogy that explores themes of colonialism, power, and whether you can change a corrupt system without also corrupting yourself. It’s a dark story without a happy ending, and I find myself very torn about reading the second two books because I’m not sure if Baru’s betrayals will “be worth it” in the end. But maybe that’s the point.

This book is fast paced, covering the first two decades of Baru’s life from childhood to young adulthood. When her country is overtaken by the Empire, we get a succinct and heartbreaking depiction of colonization from the colonized’s point of view. Offering advancement and technology with one hand, the Empire offers restrictive moralism and brutal enforcement with the others. As a precocious child, Baru is taken to school to be indoctrinated; however, she holds on to her goal of gaining power within the Empire so that she can one day…liberate her homeland? Destroy the Empire? Her end goal is not entirely clear, and I hope this plot point tightens up in future novels.

Baru is ruthless and intelligent, which, while hard to stomach sometimes, is also wonderful to see in a young female protagonist. She manages to gain enormous power and sway the fate of a nation as an accountant, which is a really fun twist on a classic story of revolution. Throughout the years that she spends in Aurdwynn, she becomes adept at telling herself that every decision she makes, every person she betrays, is necessary for her end goal. Whether or not you find the plot satisfying will heavily rely upon whether you think she’s right or not. I’m honestly so torn about this book; it was an incredibly engaging read with some thought-provoking themes, but that ending broke my heart!

What Makes This Book Queer?

Queerness is central to this book’s premise. Baru comes from a culture in which a traditional family system includes one mother and two fathers. Same-sex relationships are normalized until the Empire appears and declares it immoral. Baru’s own attraction to women must be kept secret as she works for the Empire, to varying success and varying consequences.

There is an element here of queer rage fighting against the Empire that is not all that dissimilar from Black Sails, and honestly, that comparison suddenly makes me a LOT more interested in continuing this series.

Who Do I Recommend This Book To?

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a dark fantasy novel about power and corruption that is perfect for anyone who wants a book that gives them all the feels PLUS a lot of things to think about.

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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