On the one hand, this sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant isn’t quite as filthy with forensic accounting as its predecessor in the series was, but it’s still one of those intellectually challenging fantasy novels that I know won’t be for everybody, more’s the pity. Our heroine, the titular monster after her villainous role in the first book, has been spirited off to The Elided Keep in order to be vested in her new powers and responsibilities as Agonist, the newest Cryptarch of the Falcrest Empire. Her patron Itinerant is bursting with pride at her accomplishments even as three other Cryptarchs hate her guts. Hesychast and Durance despise her because they’ve taken the opposite side of Itinerant’s game, but Apparitor has wholly personal reasons for his ire: Baru is coming into this level of the game without a hostage, and that deeply offends Apparitor on many levels (granted, Durance also has personal reasons, but she’s also Team Hesychast, so fuck her. Which isn’t to say that Team Itinerant is much better but at least it doesn’t believe in biological determinism.)
Games and gamesmanship form a very large part of the machinations for power here, with our Cryptarchs even playing an incredibly complicated type of RPG on room-sized maps in order to predict the future using known sociopolitical and economic facts and trends. But when the Imperial Navy, spurred by Baru’s earlier sacrifice of their ships and crews, begins to burn down Cryptarch holdings while seeking to arrest her — all carried out by a “mutinous” admiral hellbent on revenge — Apparitor, Durance and Baru must flee The Elided Keep and execute the next steps in determining the outcome of Itinerant and Hesychast’s ongoing power struggle. Meanwhile, Baru’s once and perhaps still best friend, naval Lieutenant Commander Aminata isiSegu, is finding herself drawn into the game even as the prospects of her ambitions toward captaining her own ship dwindle, subsumed by her growing reputation as the ruthlessly efficient Burner Of Souls.
The Monster Baru Cormorant treads brand new territory in this sequel as our Cryptarchs hunt for the secret of immortality allegedly preserved by the Oriati Mbo people, the last independent nation bordering the Ashen Sea. While there’s a bit of virtuoso economics at play in Baru’s manipulation of the poor Llosydanes, TMBC focuses more on sociopolitics with the occasional, and occasionally nasty, deep dive into medical philosophy. It is, as the kids say, A LOT. And it doesn’t help that most of the characters are freaking geniuses interacting with other freaking geniuses: while this book isn’t quite as textbook-y as TTBC, it is still an intellectual exercise that is not for anyone looking for a little mindless escapism. Which, frankly, is a good thing. Seth Dickinson is critically examining the engines of empire from any number of uncomfortable angles, and quite frankly doing an amazing job of wrapping that into a fantasy tale of exotic locales, intrigue and derring-do.
The only thing I didn’t really care for here was Tain Shir, who reminded me of the actor George Bluth would hire in Arrested Development whenever he wanted to teach his kids a lesson. I liked her background, but honestly think her stalking of Baru is a bit silly and self-indulgent, when she’s meant to be serious and sinister. Or perhaps Mr Dickinson is showing us how people who take themselves that seriously always wind up looking like absolute asses? I presume we’ll find out in the final book of the trilogy, which I’m very much looking forward to reading now that it’s out, wheeeeeee!
Also, to all procrastinators including my husband, OPEN YOUR DAMN MAIL. (This is definitely a theme of the book and not a complete tangent, I swear.)