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

How do you defeat a seemingly insurmountable empire, that overtakes foreign nations through trade with hooks attached, that swallows up foreigners and remakes them in its own image? You destroy it from the inside out.

This has been the rallying cry for Baru Cormorant, since 2015’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, when a bright young child of an island nation watched the Empire of Masks take over her home of Taranoke (renamed Sousward) and kill one of her fathers. Baru threw herself into her Masquerade studies, internalizing the Incrastic hygienic and eugenic disciplines that would condemn her for her womanhood and her homosexuality, proving her brilliance, with the aim to ascend to the capital of Falcrest and make sure no foreign child ever had to suffer like she did again.

But to unmake the Masquerade, she must make herself into one of its agents, burrow deep as a cancer so as to be blameless. To ascend to Falcrest’s inner circle of cryptarchs, she must step upon hundreds of innocent and beloved bodies. Does Baru Cormorant wear the mask, or does the mask wear her? With the third installment of The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, the Empire of Masks’ greatest threat may well prove to be its greatest triumph—and before Baru’s play as Tyrant, we must remember how she became a Traitor and then a Monster.

Upon the publication of The Monster Baru Cormorant in 2018, author Seth Dickinson provided a handy guide for Baru’s twisty, intrigue-laden path from Imperial Accountant to queen to traitor to cryptarch Agonist. In short: By leading Aurdwynn‘s rebellion as its commoner queen, winning the love of bitterly divided dukes and duchesses, and the particular love and trust of Duchess Tain Hu, before betraying them all to Falcrest. Then, when Baru was whisked away to the Elided Keep for her final test before becoming a cryptarch, Tain Hu returned to fulfill her promise, as field-general to queen, lover to beloved: She would die for Baru, so that Falcrest would not be able to hold her as a hostage over Agonist, so that Baru could proceed with her plan unfettered.

Baru still isn’t sure that she has earned that sacrifice.

Now, how will the monster Agonist become The Tyrant Baru Cormorant? We don’t have all of those answers, obviously, but we can catch you up on how Baru learned to play the Great Game in theory, and then enact it in ships and far more sacrifices (though none quite as dear as Tain Hu) in her pursuit of Falcrest’s enemy-slash-white-whale, the federation of Oriati Mbo. Read on as Baru manages to do what no other cryptarch has succeeded in and locate the mythical cancer cult of the Cancrioth and its world-devastating weapon the Kettling, and the surprising lessons and lives she has acquired on her way to the newest volume in The Masquerade.

 

Falcrest and its Qualms

Not surprisingly, a nation that conquers by the violence of capitalism, the violence of eugenics, the violence of secrets, conducts its own behavior by a series of aphorisms based on a word that literally means self-doubt. These qualms, which protect the Imperial Republic and the Faceless Throne, surface in Traitor and Monster; no doubt Tyrant will add more and/or expound on its own eponymous quandary about sharing power versus hoarding it.

The Hierarchic Qualm: The sword kills. But the arm moves the sword. Is the arm to blame for murder? No. The mind moves the arm. Is the mind to blame? No. The mind has sworn an oath to duty, and that duty moves the mind, as written by the Throne. So it is that a servant of the Throne is blameless.

The Traitor’s Qualm: If you are a duke in Aurdwynn and you see an insurrection rising, you face a choice. You cast your lost with the rebellion, or with the loyalists. You are ruined if your side fails. You hold your position, maybe even benefit, if your side wins. But the thing about rebellions is that they require a great deal of treason. The traitors cannot condemn treason. So the safest bet is to remain a loyalist at first, and then switch sides if the traitors seem certain to win, pretending you’re terribly clever and have been hampering the loyalists from within. (An unofficial qualm, made up by Xate Olake in the style of Falcrest’s rules, but perhaps relevant to Baru’s continued internal rebellion.)

The Physician’s Qualm: The flesh of the people is the body of the Republic. The care of the flesh is the care of the Republic. Neither by injury nor by neglect may I allow the Republic to come to harm.

The Cryptarch’s Qualm: Your power is secret, and in secret it is total. But to use your power you must touch the world. To touch you must be touched, to be touched is to be seen, to be seen is to be known. To be known is to perish. Act subtly, lest you diminish.

The Tyrant’s Qualm: If you hold absolute power, everyone wants to take it from you. So you must entice supporters by granting them a piece of your power. But the more people you entice, the more thinly you are spread, and to spread is to perish.

 

Cryptarchs

The Empire of Masks is technically ruled by an Emperor, though in truth the body wearing the mask on the Faceless Throne is lobotomized, a puppet ruler in totality. Instead, the cryptarchs, or rulers of secrets, pull the strings. Each is leashed by a terrible secret, a career- and/or life-ending bit of blackmail or most likely a human hostage. So, none can move against the others, or they will lose someone they love. Everyone, that is, except…

Agonist, a.k.a. Baru Cormorant: Our dear complicated savant quadruple agent, who pretends at sociopathy to her fellow cryptarchs but inside feels like a woman split in two, thanks to a head wound at the end of Traitor. While her hemilateral neglect cuts off half her world, over the course of Monster she begins to feel another presence on that unseeing right side, and finds that sometimes the right side of her body does things without her left side knowing. Within that empty space she imagines Tain Hu, her would-be hostage, occasionally speaking to her in right-justified text and reminding her of their plan.

Apparitor, a.k.a. Svirakir: Baru’s cryptarch foil, a red-headed Stakhieczi who is actually a lost prince from the northern nation who was remade in the Incastic ways. Like Baru, Svir is gay; unlike Baru, he is held hostage by the existence of his lover Lindon Satamine, the Empire Admiral in the Navy (but really only in name). In the meantime, Svir depends upon Iraji oyaSegu, his concubine/manservant/spy, who tried unsuccessfully to seduce Baru (along with many a man). Originally from the Oriati Mbo, Iraji faints at mentions of the Cancrioth.

Durance, a.k.a. Xate Yawa: Recently ascended along with Baru, Aurdwynn’s Jurispotence switched sides almost as many times as Agonist, helping to betray Aurdwynn’s aristocracy that disgusted this common-born woman moreso than the Masquerade’s brutal reign. But not even the judge-turned-cryptarch is immune to Falcrest’s system of checks and balances, and so her twin brother Xate Olake, his brilliance driven to madness, is her hostage.

Itinerant, a.k.a. Cairdine Farrier: Baru’s patron, a merchant who believes that she is his greatest triumph: an island girl whose “unhygienic” traits were conditioned by Incrasticism, who would rather murder her lover than be chained by Falcrest. (She won’t end up like his last failed protégée Tain Shir, nope not at all.) Farrier and Cosgrad Torrinde (a.k.a. Hesychast) are lifelong rivals of nature versus nurture, based in large part on their time spent as hostages of the Oriati Mbo decades prior. Farrier believes that anyone can rise above their hereditary traits and assimilate into the Empire of Masks.

Hesychast, a.k.a. Cosgrad Torrinde: Xate Yawa’s patron and, more importantly, Itinerant’s rival. A eugenicist, Torrinde believes that all people will fall prey to their hereditary traits… unless he can implant disciplines and obedience and maybe even entire personalities via the Oriati Mbo’s cancerous tumors, therefore achieving a form of immortality. The Clarified are his treasured creations, less people than highly conditioned tools who delight in servitude via secret words; the devastatingly beautiful and dangerous Iscend Comprine is of especial threat to poor Baru.

Stargazer: Not much is known of this cryptarch, whose true identity has yet to be revealed.

Renascent: Ditto, with the addition that everyone is absolutely terrified of Renascent.

 

Oriati Mbo

The federation of nations that make up the Oriati Mbo outnumber the Masquerade ten to one, both in population and in years of history. For a long time they regarded this small northeast nation with some bemusement, until the Empire proved itself “more crocodile than crane” and struck. The Armada War (which took place during Baru’s childhood) earned Falcrest control of the major sea trade, though they did not get their usual victory of assimilating the enemy. The Masquerade still wishes to do so, but thus far their cryptarchs have only been able to play out theories in the Great Game (a room-sized board with pieces representing all the players). Most hypothetical wars on the Great Game end with the Mbo absorbing more of Falcrest, but Farrier believes there is one outcome that will help them win, and it involves the Cancrioth

Tau-indi Bosoka: A Prince (or ruling authority) and a laman (the Oriati Mbo’s third, nonbinary gender, using they/them pronouns), Tau-indi teaches Baru about the notion of trim, or infusing interpersonal relationships with virtue and value. Trim is vital to survival, Tau-indi explains, because it reflects on the grand scale: secrets and conflict, rather than open collaboration, could lead to the Oriati Mbo losing their war with Falcrest. That’s what makes Tau-indi believe that the Armada War was partially their fault, as their resentment at their friends Kindalana (a fellow Prince) and Abdumasi Abd (a merchant and fighter, later Aminata’s prisoner) starting a secret relationship directly impacts how they reacted to Torrinde and Farrier.

Cancrioth: An ancient cult of the Oriati Mbo that worships the element of uranium and its seemingly magical (i.e., cancerous) properties. Farrier sends Baru, Apparitor, and co. to the Oriati Mbo to prove the existence of the Cancrioth (thought to have been eliminated by the Oriati Mbo hundreds of years earlier), which he sees as the key to inciting civil war, the only way to destroy the Oriati Mbo’s tight-knit federation. Torrinde, no surprise, wants to get his hands on the supposed immortality-transferring tumors. And Baru? She wants to infect Falcrest with the Cancrioth.

The big problem is, every cryptarch is treating the Cancrioth as either their foreign analog (i.e., constrained by checks and balances) or just a mindless disease. It’s not until Baru stumbles upon actual whales infected with human-skull tumors that she realizes just how powerful the Cancrioth are, and how they cannot necessarily be controlled as any particular person’s tool. By the end of Monster, Baru joins forces with them and discovers that there is a devastating weapon they have in their arsenal…

Kettling: An ebola-like disease, a hemorrhagic-plague, long thought to be superstition or a rumor that the Oriati Mbo made up to scare their enemies. Up until now, it has been safely contained within quarantine… but what happens when Baru Cormorant decides to unleash this potentially genocidal weapon?

 

The Stakhieczi Necessity

Located north as they are, beyond the Wintercrest mountains in Aurdwynn, the Stakhieczi have slowly crept down into the narrative.

Atakaszir (of Mansion Hussacht): The Necessary King, who once aided the Aurdwynn rebellion in the hopes of gaining the hand of its rebel queen. Still searching for his long-lost brother Svir.

Nayauru Aia: Suitor to the Necessary King, from Aurdwynn.

Purity Cartone/Ketly Norgraf: A Clarified agent under Baru/Agonist’s control.

 

Aurdwynn

You thought this island was out for the count after Baru turned on them? Never forget its founding philosophy: Aurdwynn cannot be ruled. Plus, Baru might have killed most of the land’s dukes and duchesses, but she left one person to avenge them.

Haradel Heia, a.k.a. Heingyl Ri: Daughter of the Stag King, Duke Heingyl, who was cut down in the final battle at Sieroch. With the bloody end of the rebellion and her fortuitous marriage, she has become the Stag Governor, taking over her father’s duchy and the late Governor Cattlson’s control of the city of Treatymont.

Bel Latheman: Imperial Accountant (after Baru Cormorant joined the rebellion) and Ri’s husband.

Ake Sentiamut: Loyal knight of the late Tain Hu.

 

Baru’s Family, Lovers, and Enemies

Admiral Juris Ormsment: A Navy mutineer who is dead-set on murdering Baru after the traitor rebel queen sank Navy ships at Welthony during Aurdwynn’s rebellion. When Ormsment threatens Baru’s surviving parents, Baru accepts her challenge of a duel, knowing that she will probably not be the winner. Luckily for Baru, the Kettling literally boils over in the form of infected people swarming the Oriati embassy and forcing everyone to scatter.

Lieutenant Commander Aminata isiSegu: Baru’s childhood friend, who flouted Masquerade rules on Taranoke during their adolescence to exchange secret codes and help save Baru’s cousin Lao from molestation. Originally from the Oriati Mbo, Aminata has become a skilled torturer of her own former people. Aminata is trying her damnedest not to go down with Baru’s sinking ship of a conspiracy, but also can’t help the crush that keeps her chasing Baru around the Ashen Sea.

It will be fascinating to see how Aminata and Baru’s relationship bears out in Tyrant, as they have the baggage of Farrier originally forcing Aminata to spy on Baru as teenagers (to make sure she didn’t display the suspected “tribadism”) and Baru actually being the deep-cover agent who threatens to destroy the empire that has molded Aminata into who she is. For all that they wind up on opposing sides, each still possesses a token of the other: Baru carries Aminata’s boarding saber, her first symbol of authority upon her arrival at Aurdwynn so long ago; and Aminata has a cormorant feather in her personal shrine. Not to mention that Aminata discovers a letter from what she thinks is a random prisoner, that turns out to be a final plea from Tain Hu for Aminata to be Baru’s “knight” and prove to Baru that even though she has ruined so many lives, she does not deserve to be alone in this world. Oof.

Tain Shir: Cairdine Farrier’s failed protégée, who broke from his control at some point in the past following a jungle war and has turned into an unfeeling, nightmarish killing machine. If this weren’t bad enough, she is the illegitimate daughter of Xate Olake and cousin of Tain Hu—so she is dead set on evening the score. Even though her family and her former patron can reassure her that Tain Hu loved Baru, Tain Shir has found no proof that Baru could ever have loved Hu back, and so she taunts Baru with the threat of killing other people, because if Tain Hu was the paramount sacrifice, then any other body must be collateral damage. When Baru agrees to shed more blood, Tain Shir instead cuts off two of her fingers—a nasty, double-edged lesson.

Ulyu Xe: An ilykari diver who was first Baru’s confidante and later her lover.

Shao Lune: Ormsment’s staff captain, who defected from her mutiny and wound up Baru’s prisoner and then casual lover (with a side of uncomfortable power dynamics).

Pinion: Baru’s mother, a spear-hunter.

Solit: Baru’s father, a blacksmith.

Salm: Baru’s father, a shield-bearer. Thought dead from childhood (and therefore one of Baru’s guiding motivations to destroy the Masquerade), Salm was recently revealed to be alive! …but in the possession of Tain Shir. This is very not good for Salm’s sake, but also poses a mighty question: If the tragedy of his supposed death was basically Baru’s driving force to destroy the Masquerade, how (if at all) will the knowledge that he is alive change her plans? Who is Baru Cormorant, a.k.a. Agonist, if she’s not avenging her father?

 

There are also a number of new players on the board in The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, but we’ll save that as a fun surprise. For Baru’s purposes, anyway, it’s the people from her past who will likely play the biggest part in whether her plan succeeds. Because for all that she is a brilliant savant, embodying the best and worst aspects of the Empire of Masks, she still has not learned to overcome her greatest weakness: Too obsessed with a nebulous future, she fails to pay attention to history.

Here’s what you can look forward to in the penultimate volume of The Masquerade:

The hunt is over. After fifteen years of lies and sacrifice, Baru Cormorant has the power to destroy the Imperial Republic of Falcrest that she pretends to serve. The secret society called the Cancrioth is real, and Baru is among them.

But the Cancrioth’s weapon cannot distinguish the guilty from the innocent. If it escapes quarantine, the ancient hemorrhagic plague called the Kettling will kill hundreds of millions…not just in Falcrest, but all across the world. History will end in a black bloodstain.

Is that justice? Is this really what Tain Hu hoped for when she sacrificed herself?

Baru’s enemies close in from all sides. Baru’s own mind teeters on the edge of madness or shattering revelation. Now she must choose between genocidal revenge and a far more difficult path—a conspiracy of judges, kings, spies and immortals, puppeteering the world’s riches and two great wars in a gambit for the ultimate prize.

If Baru had absolute power over the Imperial Republic, she could force Falcrest to abandon its colonies and make right its crimes.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is available now from Tor Books.

Natalie Zutter feels gut-punched every time she rereads these books. Talk Tyrant Baru with her on Twitter!

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