Seth Dickinson’s debut novel The Traitor (published in the US under the much more recognisable title The Traitor Baru Cormorant) received rapturous praise on its release in 2015 for its portrayal of the corrosive effects of empire on the colonised, and continues to be discussed in genre circles as something of a revelation in post-colonial fantasy.
The titular Baru is a child living with her mother and two fathers on the tropical island of Taranoke when the Masquerade, a colonial power that already controls vast swathes of the world, moves in. Over the next few years, Baru, now moved into a Masquerade residential school where she and her fellow Taranoki pupils are taught homophobic doctrines about “hygiene” (read: straight monogamy), sees the economy and culture of her home eroded by Masquerade trading practices and ideological indoctrination; the last straw is when one of her fathers, Salm, disappears after a traditional battle, presumably murdered by Masquerade agents for his polyamory. Swearing revenge against the Masquerade, Baru takes a position as a high-up civil servant for the empire in the wintry land of Aurdwynn, a patchwork of duchies only recently unified under imperial rule, and still rebellious. The novel broadly charts her attempts to wrangle local politics and play the Masquerade at their own game, concealing her true intentions behind layers of misdirection and seduction.
Although The Traitor is written in the third person, it hews very closely to Baru’s perspective, keeping us at a distance from Aurdwynn and its inhabitants in the same way that Baru holds herself aloof from them, figuring out how best she can use them to consolidate her position or advance her aims. This in itself is, as Phoebe Salzman-Cohen points out here, a reflection of how the Masquerade sees the nations and cultures it overruns: as resources to be used in whatever way seems politically expedient.
While it’s an effective textual strategy, it’s not a particularly groundbreaking one. No, what really drive Dickinson’s critique of colonialism home is how unflinching his novel is. In Aurdwynn, there is nowhere for Baru to turn: no kind ally, no canny manipulator with a heart of gold, no disinterested actor. Even her secretary is a possible threat. And Baru herself is very far from straightforwardly sympathetic. She is, as the novel’s title suggests, a traitor many times over. She is utterly ruthless; everything, with her, is about the long game, and about revenge. In her single-minded determination to burn down the world she actually reminds me of Essun, the protagonist of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which was published the same year as The Traitor. Jemisin and Dickinson have similar artistic goals, I think: both are writing about systems and structures that are so rotten, so sick, that it is impossible for them to produce anything good. And they’re both interested specifically in the effects of those structures on those that are oppressed by them – the ways in which they leave the oppressed with no good choices. These novels are grim not because grimdarkery is trendy, but because there is no other way to talk honestly about colonialism, imperialism and racism.
The Traitor‘s ending, twistily devastating as it is, is both a fitting conclusion to Baru’s adventure in Aurdwynn and a terrible promise of greater revenge to come. The titles of the two sequels to this novel, The Monster and The Tyrant, gesture at the heights to which Baru’s rage will take her. I for one can’t wait to read about them.