For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?
That is the question Baru Cormorant must answer when her homeland is conquered by the Empire of Masks, also known as the Masquerade.
Foreign invasion is a popular theme in fiction. In fantasy fiction, there are swords and sorcery; in science fiction one will probably encounter lasers and spaceships; popular fiction tends towards tanks, guns, and drones, lately. In The Traitor Baru Cormorant the weapons are paper currency, disease, and education. It is a sophisticated take on the trope, one that reads as far more modern than typical SFF. The result is a grim, fast-paced novel with the most reliable narrator that I can recall.
The unreliable narrator is almost a given these days. Humans are inherently untrustworthy–memory is dependent upon emotion, perception is guided by biases both conscious and unconscious, the brain decays, because physics, entropy and all that jazz. It is rare to meet a narrator that is completely and totally reliable. So rare, in fact, that the “twist” of the novel is based on the reader assuming that the narrator is unreliable.
I had to read this book twice, for that very reason. During my first read, there were a few points where I was all “wait a sec! If, then, so…” but my brain said, “naw, it couldn’t be.” And then, lo, it was so! So, I read it again, just to double check, and yes, the trick to this book is… There Is No Trick. Trust me when I tell you that I have not spoiled the novel for you.
If I have a criticism, which I do, of course, it’s that the book is too short. It moves too fast, as if half of the words were cut to make sure that the plot tripped giddily along. Unfortunately, the result is that the world-building is oddly shallow. We find out what the Masquerade is, but not much about the history and very little about the day to day economic, social, and political workings of the empire and its constituents.
Otherwise, this was an engrossing read, filled with delightfully terrible characters, espionage, and just enough action to satisfy my bloodthirsty side.
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Sept 2015