Aurdwynn Cannot Be Ruled…

I’m currently reading Seth Dickinson’s “The Traitor”.

The titular traitor is the viewpoint character, a young woman called Baru Cormorant. Thanks to the recent invasion of her homeland of Taranoke by the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, she finds herself thrust head-first into a foreign land’s struggle for freedom.

But can it really be treason when you’re rebelling against the people who destroyed your home?

Thoughts below the cut…

First of all, I can’t spoil the ending, as I’m only about 70% of the way through the book.

Baru Cormorant’s world appears to be a sort of secondary world – it has recognisably-human people in it, but the geography and history aren’t ours. There is no suggestion that it’s anyone’s lost colony or anything like that. However, I hesitate to call it a “fantasy” world – it actually feels more like a sort of mishmash between the Age of Sail, the Renaissance and bits of the Industrial Revolution, along with some very 1930s-esque politics. If there is any obvious magic, I haven’t seen any so far.

The Traitor is an interesting, but also sober and dark, take on colonialism.

The book makes an explicit link between the politics of expansionism and cultural/sexual repression. Whilst Falcrest brings new medicines, new hygiene and advanced chemical engineering, Falcresti rule also brings the creepy pseudo-science of Incrasticism. Incrastic teaching holds that homosexuality is “degenerate” and that all marriages and childbirth must be done in accordance with Falcrest’s ideas of racial hygiene. “Degenerate”, incidentally, means “punishable by death” in this context.

Yep, the Falcresti are creepy. I did say it was a bit 1930s, didn’t I?

Even more disturbingly, the Imperial Republic’s empire isn’t based – exactly – on military conquest. Instead, it’s based on unequal treaties, economic policies and on careful manipulation of trade. (Also – maybe, just maybe – some subtle use of bioweapons. The arrival of the plague in Taranoke did seem suspiciously well-timed, and the Falcresti certainly played favourites with the people who got the vaccines.)

Falcrest has an insidious character, spreading as much like an infection as like a fire.

Falcrest, I should add, is nominally a republic – there is a parliament (though we know nothing about how exactly it’s constituted, and I note the book makes no reference to any legislative elections). There is a titular Emperor, but he’s appointed to a single five-year term by the parliament. There is also a suggestion that the constitutional facade is exactly that – a facade. The parliament is referred to at one point as a “theatre for the mob”, and a possibly-unreliable character tells us that the emperors get an icepick through the eye immediately after acclamation.

(As to why no-one notices that? The Falcresti all wear masks. The higher rank you are, the bigger the mask. The Emperor, of course, shows no exposed head to anyone.)

I say it again: Falcrest is creepy.

Baru Cormorant gets dragged into this due to Falcrest’s other weird aspect: they’re surprisingly-meritocratic. A Taranoki native, Baru nonetheless scores highly in the Imperial civil service examination. In fact, she scores highly enough that she’s selected as the new Imperial Accountant to the restive federated province of Aurdwynn.

She doesn’t hold a sword, but she does hold Aurdwynn’s purse strings. You see, Baru’s new job is effectively the colony’s Secretary to the Treasury, with a side-order of Chairwoman of the Central Bank. And it puts her in a perfect position to wreak havoc. Baru has a couple of secrets. The Falcresti took one of her fathers. And worse still, she’s a walking Incrastic defect. You see, Baru happens to love other women.

This is a fascinating, powerful, dark novel. Part of the reason I haven’t finished it yet is that I’m having to take it slowly. Too much of it in one go is a shock to the system.

The idea of the heroic bureaucrat is an interesting one. While Baru’s actions shake empires and bankrupt entire countries, she doesn’t personally kill anyone. Rather, she uses her formidable analytical skills against the very people who put her in her job.

The world-building is also detailed and elaborate, although I do find myself scratching my head over some aspects of Falcresti science. They seem advanced enough in some other areas that you’d think they’d know something about electricity, but it hasn’t been mentioned so far. (In The Real World, the germ theory of disease only started going mainstream around the same time as the first wave of electrification began to kick in.) I’m also not 100% sure whether or not they have the steam engine, although I really can’t see how they couldn’t, given some of their other kit.

Baru’s drift toward open treason happens slowly, in fits and starts, as does her admission of her own sexuality. When it’s admitted in as many words to the reader that yes, she is indeed a “tribadist” (to use the Incrastic term), it doesn’t really come as a surprise. You see, we sort of knew without knowing much earlier on. Seeing partitioned thinking portrayed accurately on the page like that is eerie.

(Also, if you happened to grow up in a very conservative/overly-religious context, and also had some questions over your own sexuality? Many of these sections will feel like someone is walking on your grave.)

The pacing of the book is mostly fairly slow. There is violence, but when it occurs it has a sudden, jarring, disruptive sense. And it isn’t glorified in any way. As the civil war in Aurdwynn becomes more “war” and less “civil”, so does the squick. One particularly-harrowing passage involves a graphic description of what happens when someone takes an arrow to the gut. So. Not. Nice.

I would say, this is one to read if you’re interested in a serious examination of the politics and economics of colonialism. It’s probably not so good if you’re looking for a warm consolatory secondary-world excursion, though.

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