What We’re Reading: The Traitor
TDW: I don’t often read fantasy, but this was certainly an exception. It isn’t swords and sorcery, just swords. And pikes. And chemical warfare. In a word, it’s grimdark, easily my favourite branch of fantasy. In case you don’t know, grimdark fantasy gets its name from Warhammer 40,000, where, ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.’ In The Traitor war is plentiful, as is scheming, oppression and, as you would expect, treachery.
First up, the writing is great. It’s a highly readable book and well-plotted. Think the Red Wedding, but stretched out over a novel, each twist of the knife building the pain to an absolutely unbearable climax. The characters are rich, particularly our protagonist, Baru Cormorant, but all of the supporting characters have significant roles and captivating personalities. It is also quite a subtle book. For example, unlike much fantasy there isn’t constant fighting, but a slow progression of aggression that peaks wonderfully (a duel, a skirmish and one major battle). The world building is exquisite, the type where everything is so planned and easy for you to grasp, but by the end you know there is so much more over the horizon. In particular, the evil empire of The Masquerade is wonderfully wrought.
There is some criticism out there concerning two big parts of the book. The first regards the evilness of The Masquerade. Is it too evil? I mean, it does literally tick off every Evil Thing one could conceive, but then if I were a world dominating Empire I would do everything I could to control the masses. Releasing disease, brainwashing children and suppressing freedoms are just part of it. The book is about control via these methods, and softer methods like economic and industrial progress (the hand that gives and takes). Baru fights to control herself at every step, and even at the tragic conclusion you can say she both controlled herself and let herself be controlled. It’s a wonderfully claustrophobic book, a ‘tar pit’ as it is so wonderfully put here.
The book is also very much about masks, making the enemy a little contrived, but I went with it. A big plot point is that Baru is queer. It is against Masquerade law to be homosexual, and the punishment is severe. Some readers can’t deal with this in light of the tragic elements of the book, and that’s fine. There is an element of the trope Queer People Cannot Be Happy, and it is very grimdark in that nothing good happens. To anyone. The whole book. It’s a very tough and unforgiving world.
But I do disagree that this is a problem. The book is not about her queerness per se, rather, it is about deceit and it looks at what happens when you sacrifice the personal over a higher calling. The fact that Baru is a trained accountant, that she has suffered so early in life, all play into her calculating and ruthless logic. Is it an unfair and cruel portrayal of accountants? So far as I can tell by the majority of the complaints, it’s that, ‘everything is too grimdark!’ I say tosh, no such thing. This book has fantastic queer characters and thought-provoking themes, and yet we can’t have bad things happen? The author’s intentions are clear and masterfully designed, and that is what should be judged. What I liked is that it is never said explicitly what Baru’s predilection’s are, and like all the other elements they are layered and built to produce a resounding crescendo.
There is a lot to appreciate here, everything from the clear care and attention the book received to the fact that the names are all brilliant. (Do you know how much I hate manuscripts where the character is called Book or Photon or some other noun? Immeasurably. Do not do it.) Seth Dickinson has created a masterpiece of grimdark fantasy, one that will grip you at the start and slowly throttle the life out of you.