Y’all, I thought this was the last book in the series. Like, I’m glad there’ll be more, but I was under the impression that this was the grand finale, so spent the last thirty or so pages being pretty confused till Seth Dickinson’s afterword acknowledging both that there’s one final book coming but also that he’s really tired. And I feel the man. These books are so dense and labor intensive (but fun!) to read, in no small part due to the obvious amounts of work he’s put into building the world of the Ashen Sea, thinking through all the historical and sociological ramifications that have brought us to the current political, economic and cultural point where Baru is trying to save the world, or at least break the Falcresti dominance of it.
Quick recap for those new to the series (tho please don’t start reading it with this book, as you will miss out on a ton of things): Baru Cormorant is a young woman from Taranoke, an island civilization whose way of life is being eradicated by the colonizing Falcresti, primarily through trade and (occasionally incredibly sketchy) concepts of hygiene. As a child, she was taken under the wing of Cairdine Farrier, who made sure she had the best Falcresti education possible. Upon graduating with highest honors, she was sent as Imperial Accountant to the volatile land of Aurdwynn, a disappointment to her since she’d been hoping to earn a position in Falcrest where she might be able to advocate directly for her people. But it’s in Aurdwynn that she learns how to foment a real rebellion… as well as how to betray it.
In the second book, Baru continues her role as Farrier’s protegee, taking her place as one of the Emperor’s most powerful masked agents. She’s also learned that she’s essentially locked in a duel to the death with Durance, the protegee of Farrier’s rival, Cosgrad Torrinde, as Farrier and Torrinde strive to prove through them the primacy of their philosophies. Now partially blind and still reeling from what she did in the first book, Baru must figure out the best strategy for dealing with the free people of the Oriati Mbo, the next realm Falcrest has its sights set on. All the while, she’s plotting revenge on Falcrest for conquering first her childhood home, then the land and people she’d come to love.
In this latest installment of the series, Baru has to examine the very lengths she will go to in order to gain her revenge, both in her encounters with the mysterious Cancrioth, a cult of immortality based on cancerous cells, and with the unrelenting Tain Shir, who makes far more sense in this novel than she did in the last. At this point in the series, you start to get a better understanding of the patterns Mr Dickinson is drawing, such as how the concept of “trim” introduced in the last book works in this world. He also more explicitly, and sardonically, draws parallels between certain Ashen Sea customs, movements and ideas with their real life counterparts. The response to the anti-mannist movement, particularly, is a crushing satire of how close-minded people think feminism works.
But the most vital part of the book was in how Baru learns to trust and open herself to friendship and love, even as she finally sees the extent to which Farrier has been manipulating her throughout her entire life. She isn’t the only character to go through similar crises of faith and trust: two more of the best characters in the series, Brevet-Captain Aminata isiSegu and Prince-Ambassador Tau-Indi Bosoka also go through huge emotional arcs of their own as their upbringings and beliefs clash with the violent and often horrifying circumstances they find themselves in. And through it all, Mr Dickinson fashions some really terrific minority representation, consistently affirming diverse cultures and sexualities against the totalitarianism that seeks to eradicate them.
The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is truly one of the best high-concept low fantasies I’ve ever read, never sacrificing a damn good story for its remarkably deep intellectual underpinnings. It was nice to see the plot threads laid down in the first two books draw to satisfying conclusions, as Baru tries to figure out the best way to beat Falcrest, or at least Farrier. I’m not totally sold on the new threat discovered at the end of this novel, and am wondering if I’m completely off-base in assuming Aminata is Kindalana’s daughter. But I’m trusting that Mr Dickinson will write a completely mind-blowing conclusion to the series, once he’s had a chance to rest and recharge. These books are not light reading, and I can’t imagine that they were light writing either! They’re so rewarding tho, at least for me as the reader, and I can’t imagine wishing anything but the same for the author who brought them to be.
The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson was published August 11th, 2020 by Tor Books and is available from all good booksellers including
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