The Traitor Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade, #1) The Traitor Baru Cormorant discussion


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message 1: by Seth (new)

Seth Dickinson I wrote this book! I love talking about it. Feel free to ask me anything here!

The Traitor Baru Cormorant


message 2: by Seth (new)

Seth Dickinson Maryann wrote: "How long was the planning period before beginning the first draft? Do you start writing as soon as an idea sparks, or do you let it simmer for a while?"

For this book, I worked off a short story I'd previously published — so in a sense I had the whole time between selling that story (in 2011) until I began working on the novel (in 2013). But that's kind of deceptive! When I actually decide to sit down and write a story, I usually need to get a few pages of story down on paper before I can really crack the beast open and figure out what it's about.

Style is really important to me, so often the first thing I need to learn about a story is what style I'll be writing in. The only way to do that, for me, is to write.


Matt Watkins I loved the novel! Thanks! What influences/historical examples did you use when researching it? Obviously Polynesian colonization, Australian/Spanish-Californian forced education of native populations, etc. I felt like KJ Parker's Engineer trilogy must be an influence.


Matt Watkins Spoiler tags for this question.
(view spoiler)


Matt Watkins Don't you think the Aurdwynn situation would lend itself to an excellent board game?


message 6: by Seth (new)

Seth Dickinson Hi Matt!

Matt wrote: "I loved the novel! Thanks! What influences/historical examples did you use when researching it? Obviously Polynesian colonization, Australian/Spanish-Californian forced education of native populations, etc. I felt like KJ Parker's Engineer trilogy must be an influence."

I tried very hard to avoid basing the book on any one place or time in history — I feel like I might let you down, even: I haven't read KJ Parker!

I keep a list of influences I drew on — here are a few!

"Cognitive psychology. Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars. Fantasy's neglect of the Islamic Golden Age, the Indian Ocean trade system, and other dynamic, vital sections of history. Code Name Verity, indirectly—I hadn't read it yet but people kept talking to me about it. Partible paternity in Amazon Basin societies. Naval warfare between Japan and Korea. The ugly history of eugenic ideology. Admiral Keumalahayati. 1984. Online discussion about who was and wasn't allowed to be the protagonist of an epic fantasy novel, because some people would, it was said, be 'too oppressed to do anything.' Megan Whalen Turner's Queen of Attolia. C. J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station. Civilization IV, but not V. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Everyone at the Alpha workshop who talked about making things hurt more. Yoon Ha Lee. Sundiata Keita. We Have Always Fought, by Kameron Hurley."

Matt wrote: "Spoiler tags for this question.
[spoilers removed]"


That's a good question! Baru doesn't think much of feudalism; several times she imagines how much better she could run things, given the chance. But she sees power as a necessity for change: her eyes are on claiming that power before she makes change. It's up to the reader to decide whether this is pragmatic, or self-defeating.

Matt wrote: "Don't you think the Aurdwynn situation would lend itself to an excellent board game?"

I really, really do! I imagine something like Archipelago or Battlestar Galactica, where everyone's superficially on the same team, but each chasing after their own secret agenda.

A huge inspiration for the book was Megan Whalen Turner's QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, which does a great job of drawing compelling characters playing a geopolitical game.


Matt Watkins Wow, thanks for the quick responses! You've given me quite a bit to add to my reading list.

Re: feudalism. It actually seems like the idea of power as a tool is foremost in a bunch of recent fantasy, from George RR Martin's books, where characters who pursue an ideological agenda without regard for power dynamics are ruthlessly culled by the author, to Katherine Addison's Goblin Emperor, where the only real power Maia wields as emperor is his ability to make friends and form alliances. I think there even a couple of points in Cormorant where Baru comments that her grasp on power seems tenuous or illusory.

I'll keep my eye out for the board game, and I look forward to reading what you write next.


message 8: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 26, 2015 11:53AM) (new)

First off, as a tabletop RPG player I think an Aurdwynn themed board game would be good fun! Also, when I finished reading this book I realized the superficial similarities to The Queen's Thief series, what with the zooming - out method of world building and describing battles (if that makes sense), the big twist ending and unreliable narrator, and even the writing style itself at times. For that reason, I told my brother who's a huge Queen's Thief fan that he might like Traitor Baru Cormorant.

But alright! To the actual questions:

There was a discussion in one of the fantasy groups I frequent that debated the genre Baru Cormorant belongs to. Some thought that it had too little fantasy elements to count as true fantasy, and others mentioned that it's more popular with the SciFi crowd than the fantasy crowd. Some readers have even labeled this scifi. Looking back, I realized that Baru Cormorant does in fact have a lot of science elements, and wondered at the potential of science fiction set in a low tech world. I was wondering:

1) Would you consider science fiction a valid label for Baru Cormorant?

2) What made you want to write a fantasy novel?

3) I personally don't pay too much mind to genre as long as the book is good, but I wanted to point out that it's nice that you have pushed the boundaries of fantasy. In that same vein, do you have any thoughts on how the fantasy genre can become more progressive? Anything can happen in fantasy, yet often fantasy novels are stuck on the same narrative (straight/white/misogynistic/medieval European, etc). I notice that newer books like yours are starting to combat this some.

3) I read the short story on which Baru Cormorant is based, and I noticed just how polished it was, and how you didn't have to do much editing for the final version. Did you already have an idea of how the entire story would go before writing the short story? And were there any challenges that went into writing the ending of the story before everything else?

And some for fun questions!

4) Do you have any musical muses for your writing?

5) How would you feel about a Baru Cormorant mini series a la Game of Thrones?


message 9: by Seth (new)

Seth Dickinson Sami! Hi! I love your comments on the sethblog.

1) I don't really care what people call the story, as long as they read it! I think labels like this are mostly useful for marketing. But I do absolutely think it qualifies as fantasy, among, perhaps, other things. To quote myself from elsewhere:

"I firmly believe it wears the fantasy tag (I think of genres as tags, not mutually exclusive buckets). Constructing a secondary world and using it to examine ours — by saying 'what if this had happened like that, what if people believed so and discovered this, what if we had more of such-and-such and a continent shaped like so' — is a fantastic act. I would say it's one of the basic purposes of imagination, and fantasy is a literature of imagination.

Fantasy lets us develop parallax on the real world. Fantasy lets us examine counterfactuals.

It's a geopolitical thriller about the great forces of the world and one woman's personal quest to learn and wield them. It's a motherfucking wizard story, hell yeah! The fact that everything in the story is physically plausible (maybe — the possibility of supernatural action is in there) doesn't mean it's not full of the fantastic. Baru levels up hard, from oppressed schoolgirl to world-shaking leader. And she does it by learning to wield incredible power."

I just don't believe that there's much use in putting genre labels on work. The variation within these genres is much, much greater than the variation between them. What really matters to me is the style of the work, the matters it's concerned with, the nature of its conflict — not the shibboleths it deploys to win membership in one marketing category or another.

2) I wanted to write a novel that could look at the development of human societies and explore what was inevitable, what might change, and what forces drive history.

3) I'm glad you liked the story! Everything I knew about Baru's journey when I wrote that story is right in the text. I actually found it really helpful to have an ending written, since it helped me foreshadow the work and hone all the themes and motifs to drive towards one goal.

4) I listen to just about anything with energy! I need music to eat up enough of my brain that it doesn't wander off while I'm writing. I was on a big Vienna Teng kick when I wrote the first book.

5) I'd love to see it! I'm a sucker for good cinematography, so I've been really happy with the rise of high-budget TV in the last few years. I hope they wouldn't whitewash the cast.


Yefim Hi, Seth.

First off, let me start by saying that I absolutely loved your book and I wanted to thank you for writing it. It was a book that definitely needed to exist, and you deserve all the praise for making it happen. It was my favorite book of 2015, and I hope it does well during the awards season. It certainly deserves it.

That said, I have a couple of questions of the nitpicking variety about some things that were not explicitly addressed in the text - and for good reason, as I've heard people already complaining about how complicated the economics and politics in the story were. However, that leaves people like me who wished for even more complexity to wonder, and I would appreciate if you could clarify some things. For anyone else reading this, beware of spoilers ahead.

1) Aurdwynn seems to be based on medieval Europe. In European feudal economies, a common way to contain inflation was to institute strict price and wage ceilings. It wasn't mentioned in the book if this had been attempted in the aftermath of Baru collapsing the currency. If it had been, why did it fail?

2) When the Masquerade takes down the rebellion the night after the battle, what was their in-universe logic for doing so? I mean, it makes perfect dramatic sense, so I understand why it happened the way it did in the book. However, the news of the victory could not have possibly spread throughout the country overnight, so if they wanted to break the Traitor's Qualm and truly get everyone who had been waiting until victory, would it not have made sense for them to wait longer before making their move? Did they feel the need to move to take down the rebellion before the arrival of the Necessary King (love the name, btw!), because they were not yet ready to act directly against him?

I apologize for bothering you with minutiae, but your book was so rich in detail and so deeply grounded in reality that my restless brain insists on treating the events depicted as real, which makes me wonder what am I missing.


message 11: by Seth (new)

Seth Dickinson Hi Yefim! I'm glad the book worked for you! Thank YOU for writing a cool post full of thought!

1) Wage and price controls were probably attempted on a per-duchy level, but with so much currency in circulation and so little financial bureaucracy outside the Fiat Bank itself, they don't work very well. Price controls have to be enforced, and without the governing authority (Baru's fiat bank) on board, it's going to be tricky to keep everyone in line, especially when some of the duchies are economically at the mercy of their landlords.

2) That's definitely something I thought about. The reason I did it this way is *because* it makes perfect dramatic sense. The Masquerade recognizes and uses the power of stories to condition its citizens. The real prize of the battle are the survivors - the people who'll carry the story with them: a battle they thought they won, a leader they thought they could trust, overthrown. (They won't be able to, or want to, kill everyone at Sieroch.) The lesson they're teaching is that they're *willing* to throw away a governor and a small chunk of an army just to fuck with you: it's all according to plan.

And yeah, there are outside time pressures. Not just the Stakhi, but one of the hidden objectives of the rebellion relating to the Oriati.

Hope that makes sense!


Yefim Seth wrote: "Hi Yefim! I'm glad the book worked for you! Thank YOU for writing a cool post full of thought!

1) Wage and price controls were probably attempted on a per-duchy level, but with so much currency in..."


Hi, Seth! Thanks so much for responding! Now that I'm mostly free of the clutches of the flu (or as I call it, the Kiss of Papa Nurgle), I can trust myself with stringing words together in sentences without embarrassing myself in public :)

You answered my questions, but your answers gave me more questions! Specifically, I am interested in the mechanism the Masquerade uses to propagate its narrative- the actual steps on the path the tale will need to take from the minds of its creators to, say, the mind of an illiterate serf in Duchy Erebog without being distorted or corrupted along the way, especially since Baru is not seen after the rebellion's demise. There are all sorts of alternate versions that could sprout out of the event. For all that anyone knows, it was Lyxaxu or Xate Yawa, or any other combination of rebels, who betrayed them and led to Baru's capture. After all, if she was behind it all, why isn't she being honored and paraded through Treatymont? And if she does appear later, well, everyone who knows about the Cold Cellar and Masquerade conditioning will have reason to distrust anything she says. There is a significant degree of confirmation bias to overcome, and if an alternative, more comfortable explanation is available, would not that one be chosen instead?

Now, you probably know this, but others reading this may not, so I'm going to elaborate on that a bit. It's my impression that in our world, this sort of information dominance has been achieved by using economies of scale to saturate whatever media of communication is used at the time, and then rely on peer pressure and conformity to drown out opposing narratives. But how is this accomplished in what is essentially a feudal society? I imagine there are newspapers and the like in the cities, but, perhaps because I'm currently reading the Fugger News-Letters, I can't quite help but think just how unreliable communications were, even when it came to major events like the assassination of William the Silent or the Spanish Armada, even when collected by what was at one point the dominant banking house of Europe. They've had branches in every Catholic city of note, even as far as India and Japan, and yet the reports they've received are a very interesting combination of things that are right, and things that have been proven later to have been very wrong. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the reports, as they're fairly obscure (I'm reading them from a book that has been out of print since 1925) and few of them have made it online, but the Spanish Armada ones did , so it can be used as an example of just how confusing things were at the time.

And this is just for communications between major urban centers. The peasants are a different story entirely, as they are generally notoriously insular, conservative in outlook, and resistant to change (as, for example, the Bolsheviks discovered when they tried to organize the countryside). Getting through to them would be an even more difficult task.

The question is then, how did the Masquerade actually overcome all these obstacles to impose their narrative on Aurdwynn?

Thanks again for your answer and sorry for piling even more stuff on, but this is fascinating stuff. :)


message 13: by Seth (new)

Seth Dickinson Consider a few factors:

The Masquerade has agents in the ilykari, who are a major source of folk literacy and communication.

Before Sieroch, everyone knows Baru's name from her gold loans and her winter campaigns. Everyone on the Inirein sees her army marching to Sieroch.

After Sieroch, suddenly all the dukes are dead and the country is in political chaos. Everyone knows things just went bad, and with so much rebel PR focused on Baru Cormorant, one of the leading questions is going to be 'what about Baru?'

Eyewitnesses from Sieroch, Masquerade agents, and anti-Coyote loyalists can all help magnify the story of what happened with her.


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