What You Need to Know Before Reading Seth Dickinson’s The Monster Baru Cormorant

It’s been three years since we met Baru Cormorant, the brilliant, ruthless, compelling protagonist of Seth Dickinson’s debut novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Not unlike Baru’s tenure in Aurdwynn, it has been a long, hard wait for the sequel. Don’t remember what happened in Aurdwynn? Unclear on when the star Imperial Accountant went from savant to Queen to traitor to The Monster Baru Cormorant? Author Seth Dickinson has provided a handy refresher for everything from the fates of Aurdwynn’s rebel dukes to Cairdine Farrier’s meta-game to a helpful list of dramatis personae for Baru’s next heartbreaking adventure!

Holy crap! The Traitor Baru Cormorant came out three years ago, and you expect me to remember anything for the sequel?

Evil Overlord List, Cellblock A, item 109: “I shall see to it that plucky young lads/lasses in strange clothes and with the accent of an outlander shall REGULARLY climb some monument in the main square of my capital and denounce me, claim to know the secret of my power, rally the masses to rebellion etc. That way, the citizens will be jaded in case the real thing ever comes along.”

When the camarilla of spies that rules the Masquerade (pardon me, the Imperial Republic of Falcrest) suspects imminent rebellion in their colonial province of Aurdwynn, they make the risky but characteristically Machiavellian call to pre-empt the whole mess by starting the revolution themselves. Like a controlled burn to clear underbrush before a wildfire starts, they’ll draw out the traitors, lure them into a trap, and consolidate Aurdwynn as a resource base and military barrier against invaders.

They just need a plucky young foreigner to act as their Judas goat. Enter Baru.

Who’s Baru, and how the hell do I pronounce that?

BAH-roo, like ‘Maru’, the cat who likes to sit in boxes. Not ‘bear ooh’ or ‘ba-ROO’.

Born on the distant island of Taranoke to a mother and two fathers (the Taranoki practice partible paternity), Baru sees her home inexorably seduced into the Masquerade by a combination of trade policy, unfair treaties, and planned epidemics. When she confronts a Masquerade merchant about their tactics, he assures her that they ‘never conquer’ and ‘always come as friends’…and he offers her a place in the new Masquerade school.

The merchant’s name is Cairdine Farrier, and, unknown to Baru, he is a member of the secret council called the Throne—a steering committee that controls the Masquerade with blackmail, intrigue, and bribery.

The Masquerade brings prosperity, sophisticated engineering, advanced science and modern medicine to Taranoke. Baru is intoxicated by their power and knowledge. But they also begin to enforce their pseudoscientific policy of ‘Incrastic social hygiene’, reorganizing society around the nuclear man-woman family and outlawing traditional beliefs. When Baru’s father Salm vanishes during a brief civil war, Baru is convinced that the Masquerade killed him in the name of ‘hygiene’.

Coldly furious, Baru does exactly what heroes fighting evil empires are not supposed to: she resolves to excel at her studies, ace the Imperial civil service exam, and work her way up to a post where she can liberate her home. Her choices leave her estranged from her mother Pinion and surviving father Solit, who are fighters in the local resistance.

The patronage of Mister Cairdine Farrier will be vital to her ascent. Perhaps this is why Baru never stops to wonder if her father’s disappearance was arranged…or who might have arranged it.

So Baru is a collaborator. That’s a pretty morally questionable way to fight for your home.

Ain’t it? By the time Baru reaches Aurdwynn, she’s spent more time in a Masquerade school on Taranoke (pardon me, it’s been renamed Sousward) than she spent living with her parents. Is she even a real Taranoki?

But just you wait, it gets worse!

Baru’s plan to take a civil service post in Falcrest, capital of the Masquerade, rapidly goes to shit. Instead she’s posted to the cold northern province of Aurdwynn, where a civil war is brewing. And what job do they give her, eighteen years old and fresh out of school? Imperial Accountant. How is she supposed to prove her worth as a political asset if she has no power to make law or move troops? The only bright spot in Baru’s predicament is Tain Hu, a minor local duchess who has taken Baru’s eye.

Fortunately, Baru’s a savant (or so Cairdine Farrier keeps telling her), and she makes the most of her new position. Through audits and deduction she detects and foils a rebel plot to use counterfeit currencies to buy the loyalty of local dukes…at the minor cost of crashing the entire provincial economy, which costs Falcrest’s Parliament piles of tax money.

Baru spends three years stuck in Aurdwynn, trying to unfuck this mess she’s made. She begins to think she’s thrown away her life. Then, one day, a red-haired man approaches her with an offer directly from the Throne, the above-mentioned camarilla of spies pulling all the strings.

If she’ll just do one thing for them, she can have all the power she desires…

You’ve had 700 words, feller. Wrap it up with the ellipses.

Through a gold-loan program to farmers, Baru wins the affection of the common people; through a major act of piracy she steals Aurdwynn’s entire annual tax yield; and through the Duchess Tain Hu she gains access to the rebellion’s inner circle, where she offers to establish herself as the rebels’ bank.

Warily, they accept. Baru betrays the Masquerade and joins the rebellion. Because she’s an outsider to Aurdwynn, she stands outside the existing grudges and ducal politics. The rebel dukes find her easier to trust than their own people; they even begin to court her as a future queen.

For one brutal winter Baru leads the rebels in war against the Masquerade. She’s no general, but her talent for logistics and symbolism makes her invaluable. She comes to respect the people of Aurdwynn, and to love Tain Hu, whose fierce principles and unbreakable strength fill Baru with admiration.

When Baru gathers the rebels for a final victorious battle on the flood plain at Sieroch, she knows her work is done. On that last night she confesses her feelings to Hu, and then exiles her into the north.

The next morning, Masquerade marines scatter the rebel army even as assassins wipe out the dukes. Only Tain Hu escapes, saved by exile.

No she doesn’t.

You remembered!

Baru is struck in the head by a rebel soldier’s maul during her exfiltration, and passes through early spring in a coma. She awakens at the Elided Keep, a secret retreat for the members of the Imperial Throne. She has developed a mysterious head wound—a case of hemilateral neglect, the inability to recognize or attend to objects on her right side. Half her world is lost. Wracked by grief and regret, Baru can’t help but feel it’s a kind of justice.

Her final test arrives.

The red-haired man, who goes by the name Apparitor, sails up to the Elided Keep with a prisoner. He claims he captured Tain Hu and brought her here for Baru to execute as a traitor.

Baru knows she cannot do it. She also knows this is how the Throne will control her. All the cryptarchs of the Throne maintain a delicate web of mutual blackmail. Tain Hu will be the hostage who guarantees Baru’s good behavior.

But Tain Hu herself convinces Baru what must be done. She must execute her lover, unflinching, unbroken: she must carry out the letter of the law and drown the traitor, rather than allowing Tain Hu to live. This is the only way to satisfy Tain Hu’s honor and to give Baru a chance to destroy the Masquerade from within.

And Baru does it. She passes the test the Throne expected her to fail. They have no hold over her, and she now has access to their limitless power.

Right?

Okay, cool plot summary. Remind me, real quick, of all the characters and little details you’re going to namedrop like I’m supposed to know them?

You clever thing!

Baru Fisher was Baru’s nickname when she led the Coyote rebels in Aurdwynn. She was actually acclaimed Queen by the dukes, although there was never a proper coronation. She even took a consort—naming Tain Hu when the Dukes pressed her to choose a formal companion.

Tain Hu, Duchess Vultjag is still, even after her execution, the most important person in Baru’s life. Baru has promised to protect and liberate her home. She once fought a duel on Baru’s behalf, winning easily; she intimated that she learned to fight after an encounter with a ‘man in an iron circlet.’ Her Duchy Vultjag lies in the north of Aurdwynn, pressed up against the Wintercrest Mountains, home of…

Dziransi is the name of an agent of the reclusive Stakhieczi Necessity, an alpine society among the Wintercrests. He was sent as a scout by the Necessary King, the tenuous leader of the Stakhieczi. He attempted to arrange Baru’s marriage to that King before her betrayal. His fate is unknown to Baru.

Purity Cartone is Clarified, a person bred and raised in a system of psychological conditioning which teaches absolute and joyous service to the Republic. Cast out by his masters, unable to achieve the drug-like fulfillment he receives from obeying orders, he now serves Baru—who has dispatched him to retrieve a secret document where she, and the other rebels, recorded fatally compromising secrets. Purity Cartone was once castrated by…

Xate Yawa (just pronounce the ‘x’ like ‘sh’) is the Jurispotence of Aurdwynn, supreme medical and judicial authority. As a commoner girl she helped the Masquerade seize Aurdwynn, murdering the old Duke Lachta herself. But she was also a key figure in the rebellion, playing the system from the inside. Baru is uncertain of her true loyalties, but fairly confident that Yawa, like herself, is angling for a position in the Imperial Throne. Yawa is in her sixties, like her twin brother…

Xate Olake was the spymaster of the rebellion, Baru’s close friend, and a surrogate father to Tain Hu, whose aunt Tain Ko he married long ago. Tain Hu and Xate Olake occasionally spoke of mysterious matters which they never revealed to Baru. He believed wholeheartedly in the rebellion and in Baru’s role in it. She exiled him in an attempt to save him from the Masquerade trap, but the red-haired man claims to have found and killed him.

Apparitor is the Throne use-name preferred by the ‘red-haired man’, a Stakhieczi native who now acts as the Throne’s messenger and agent in the north. Baru has deduced that he is actually a Stakhieczi prince, brother of the Necessary King. He captured Tain Hu and brought her to the Elided Keep for her execution; as it became clear that Baru was going to go through with the killing, he tried to sway Baru’s mind. His colleagues include…

Itinerant, also known as Mister Cairdine Farrier, was first known to Baru as a wool merchant from Falcrest with a blue-eyed Aurdwynni bodyguard and a taste for mango. He is in truth a member of the Imperial Throne, and a master manipulator. He has sponsored Baru’s ascension, perhaps as part of his rivalry with…

Hesychast is another member of the Imperial Throne, largely unknown to Baru, except that he strongly believes in biologically determined theories of race and eugenics. Baru first heard of him shortly after her departure from Taranoke, where she said goodbye to…

Salm, Solit, and Pinion are Baru’s parents; Salm is missing, and Baru presumes him dead. Baru’s relationship to her mother was particularly tested during her time in the Masquerade school at Iriad, where she met…

Aminata is a native of Oriati Mbo, the enormous cluster of confederations to Falcrest’s south. Her parents were traders, but she was eventually adopted by Falcrest’s Navy, which brought her to a posting on Taranoke. As a young midshipman she met Baru and they worked together to arrange the dismissal of a rapist teacher. They were close friends until, one day, Aminata struck Baru during a practice bout and rebuked her for ‘tribadism’, attraction towards women (apparently acting on a tip from Cairdine Farrier). They partially reconciled, but parted on uncertain terms. The Oriati are notable for their third gender and for …

The Syndicate Eyota was an Oriati pirate flotilla which arrived in Aurdwynn to support the rebels with an attack on the Masquerade naval base at Treatymont. The Oriati have increasingly resented Falcrest’s expansion since their defeat in the Armada War, and if it can be proven that these ‘pirates’ were funded or supplied by the Oriati governments, that could lead to open war.

The man who died at the Fuller’s Road was a Coyote fighter accidentally shot by Baru’s own bodyguards in the confusion of battle. He died mumbling that he had ‘put it down the well’; what ‘it’ might be, or whether it has any bearing on Baru’s schemes, she does not know. Perhaps he was part of another story, intersecting Baru’s but utterly disconnected.

Himu, Devena, and Wydd are the Aurdwynni virtues (or ‘ykari’) of, respectively, excess and energy, balance and stasis, and patience and cold. Baru picked up the habit of taking their names in vain during her time in Aurdwynn.

Ulyu Xe is a student (called an ilykari) of Wydd, a trained diver, and a confidante to many. Baru confessed her inner conflict to Ulyu Xe before the final betrayal at Sieroch.

The Monster Baru Cormorant is the name of Baru’s next story, available October 30th from Tor Books!

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