Title: The Monster Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade 2)
Author: Seth Dickinson
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: October 30th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Politics, Economy, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (hardback)
As the long-awaited sequel to Traitor Baru Cormorant, Monster was one of my two most anticipated releases of 2018 and I can safely say that it did not disappoint.
There are few things to keep in mind when diving into Monster.
One: this isn’t a book that you can power through in one or two sittings. It’s a dense, slow-paced story stuffed to the brim with intricate character work and social sciences.
Two: this is an entirely different beast to the first book. Traitor Baru Cormorant was very much an origin story for Baru. I’d almost call it an extended prologue–a story that needed to be told in order for the main story to progress. It was about setting up the pieces on a game board. Or no–not even that. It was about taking chunks of wood and whittling them into piece-like shapes.
Monster is about setting them on the board and saying, “Okay, let’s get moving.”
And boy, do they ever move.
Monster expands our view hundredfold, focusing not only on Baru but also her enemies and her maybe-allies. Dickinson makes it clear that this isn’t just a Baru story anymore. There are other players on the board and each come with their own motivations and their visions for the endgame. And make no mistake, they will each sacrifice what it takes to get there.
Every one of these characters (it feels weird calling them “side” characters) are complex and interesting and so distinct. I just can’t get enough of Dickinson’s ability for compact character building. Even the ones that appear on page for a short amount of time leave such crisp and deep impressions. And that’s a seriously hard thing to do.
As with Traitor, the female characters really shine in this one. These are women of powerful positions. Women of ambition and calculation. Women who have known betrayal and are more than willing to deal it out in turn.
And then there’s the Apparitor who is hand-down the best side character in the book. He’s refreshingly blunt and caustic–his insults giving Scott Lynch a run for his money–and the snipey banter between him and Baru is an absolute treat and a much-needed reprieve from all the doom and gloom (if nothing else, I want these two to become friends).
The plot picks up immediately after the ending of Traitor and we now turn our eyes southward to Oriati Mbo, the thousand year old communal nation that has repelled countless attempts of subjugation and kept its citizens content. Naturally, the Empire wants to know their secrets.
So, here’s an interesting thing. Book 1 established the Empire as this unmovable, all-powerful force. Monster, however, introduces tension within the Empire (specifically, between the navy and the parliament) that, with the right or wrong force, can create cracks in their system. They seem less like a faceless evil and more like a nation with its fair share of weak points.
So while Book 1 was very much an Us VS Them (at least, on the surface), Book 2 isn’t so clear cut. It doesn’t help that it gives you a lot of characters from the Empire that you can sympathize with, like the Apparitor and his lover and Baru’s friend Aminata.
So the water starts getting really muddy, which I love. Which endgame do we, as readers, root for here? The burning of the world through an all-out war as Baru claims she wants? But look at what Baru’s done. Look at what she plans on doing in the future. As repulsed as we are by the Empire’s methods, how can we, in good conscience, root for a woman who will use the memory of loved ones as carte blanche for all her terrible actions?
Noble and kind and honest doesn’t seem to get you very far in this world. And I can’t wait to see how that sentiment changes as the series goes on.
Do you know what my most favourite part about the book is, though? The writing.
I loved it in Traitor, but compared to Monster I can only call the former restrained and the latter experimental and free-flowing. Dickinson just does so many interesting things with the style and formatting–we get PoV and tense switches, flashbacks, interludes, small diagrams in the middle of paragraphs, interjections from dead characters (or so it seems), extended use of parentheses. Each PoV comes with its own distinct voice and structure, so even when nothing notable was happening plot-wise, I was still very much engaged by the writing itself.
I love the creativity and the daring of it because you don’t see too many epic fantasy books go, “Fuck conventional styles, I’m just going to do what I want.” And in a sequel at that.
And what surprised me was how much humour there is. Some of it’s gallows humour–the “can’t cry so might as well laugh” type–but others are genuine, which I didn’t expect considering how things ended in Traitor. Really, all I could think was that he must have had a ton of fun writing some of this because I had a ton of fun reading it.
He does a lot of things and I know it won’t be to everyone’s tastes–I know some people like the prose in their fantasy to be plain and invisible–but, for me, they all worked and really cemented Dickinson as one of my favourites in the genre.
So if you’re one of those people who have sunk far too many hours of their lives into grand strategy games like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings (*whistles loudly*) and the notion of staring at a map plotting out trade alliances, assassinations, and increasing territory while stamping out conflict makes you positively giddy, then my god, this book (and the series) is for you. It is geopolitical fantasy at its finest.
If you’re one of those people who are into books written by someone who’s well-versed in science and politics and knows how to communicate them to the readers in a clear but interesting way, while also creating ridiculously complex characters and drowning the text in flair and wordsmithery…then you should also maybe, probably, most definitely pick this up.
Thank you to Tor for providing the review copy. All opinions are my own.