The Traitor Baru Cormorant read-along: Chapter 5!

Join me in a postpartum examination of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Chapter 5! Every line you read could spoil the whole book, so finish first.

Let’s go for lunch, audit a bank, meet our creepy patron, and go to jail.

Scene One

She wrote a letter to Lapetiare‘s captain, and then—impatient now, eager to pursue this new avenue—went to her scheduled lunch with Cattlson.

These chapters are quite procedural. There’s kind of a lapse here, between Baru’s arrival in Aurdwynn and her night out with Aminata, in which she gets very few really emotional, character-driven moments. I chose to focus on tension and plot progress on purpose, to push the reader forward and to show off Baru’s focus and abilities, but after so many rereads I find myself wanting a couple more nuggets of downtime. Still, readers seem to absolutely charge through these sections, so maybe the tension-solution-escalation cycle’s working!

I intentionally leached away some of the warmth and lyricism from the prose, to signal Baru’s severance from her home. Aurdwynn is a colder, harder place.

With the light she expected warmth, but no: she sat shivering. Aurdwynn was cold. The cold made her want to move.

See, I told you it’s cold! Baru uses a lot of colons and emdashes to signal her structured thoughts and divided psyche.

“We’re helping them. But we could be helping them more.”

Cattlson genuinely wants to do good, but he’s paternalistic about it. Imagine him joining the civil service so that he could do some good out there, and then gradually losing his way in a cycle of political competition, rivalry, manipulation, and compromise. No wonder he tries to act like a Duke of Aurdwynn. It gives him a place in the world.

“Parliament.” He snorted. “Parliament is a theater for the mob. The Throne sets these imperatives.” He stood abruptly, going to the windows, leaving Baru alone at the wide table…

When Cattlson activates his own knowledge of the Throne, he remembers that Baru is likely in favor as a young candidate, and his insecurity drives him away.

Could Cairdine Farrier be the sovereign, unmasked? No. Absurd.

I like illustrating speculation, even when it’s wrong. It makes the characters more naturalistic, and when they do get things right it feels more earned.

He touched the window glass, hand splayed.

Compare with the manipulation of glass when Baru debates power with the ‘actress’ at the end of Act 1. Here, Cattlson is trapped inside the glass.

At this he frowned sharply, as if he had just delivered a rebuke, or reined in a bothersome new mount. He had a square face, a strong jaw, skin the color of weathered oak, and Baru quibbled for a moment over the feeling that this man chosen by Parliament had no design to conceal, no machinations to guard—just a plain honesty, too naked to last.

From the invocation of horses, you can see that Cattlson is thinking about sex (horses mean sex when Cattlson is involved, in a symbolic way), but in a self-loathing and reproachful fashion. He wants to be professional with Baru. He’s beating himself up for that crack about Taranoki women. Many of the social struggles of the Falcresti characters are drawn from crises in modern liberalism: well-intentioned people being shitheads in their efforts to do good.

And we get a little bit of his rare characterization, which is mostly ‘this dude is so far out of his depth.’

“This is a cold and grudging land. Every valley’s got a duke, and a lot of starving muddy serfs rooting in the earth for their shallow livelihoods.”

Cattlson’s narrative of Aurdwynn is (purposefuily) the stock faux-medieval setting of so many fantasy novels, kind of a Monty Python deal. He’s not wrong about the facts, but he’s assembled a pretty flat and simplistic story about the country he rules. I wish I could’ve done more with daily life in Aurdwynn, holidays, festivals, social events, syncretism between the three big cultural traditions present here…that’s a real regret. The fanfiction I could write!

Child rearing on Taranoke had been safe, communal, full of fathers and warmth.

A shallow nod to the evo-bio explanations behind family structures on Taranoke. I’m not an evolutionary determinist, but I believe it’s important to touch on the more rigorous and well-studied bits of the relationship between evolution and human behavior. Bad evo psych can go fuck itself.

Cattlson’s speech after this paragraph, which I am too lazy to type out here, is important to explaining why the Masquerade is so successful: it can offer material gains to those who accept its hegemony. It’s hard to understate how powerful clean water, safe roads, good preservatives, and inoculation can be to quality of life. And when they pair those miracles with a set of behavioral guidelines…it’s rather like someone showing up with a religion that doesn’t just offer eternal life, but actually provides tangible gains right away.

Dangerous.

“I want to find a good husband for Heingyl Ri…Do you know how I made a loyal brother of Duke Heingyl? I showed him I could give his children the world. But Parliament says—let the children rot.

This is a nice hint at the pressures that may be driving Heingyl Ri. Her role in the story leads her to control of Aurdwynn, but also kills her father and Cattlson. Her father loves her. How much does she love her father? Are the choices she make agonizing? I think so.

This also provides a nice bit of characterization for the Heingyl/Cattlson bond, which is built on hope for future possibilities for Aurdwynn’s children. Yet on a more subtle level it also characterizes the Throne against Parliament. The Throne is better able to think in the long term, since it doesn’t have to worry about pleasing voters and patrons right now.

“Xate Yawa will chase their little ykari cults and drunken sodomites like a mad dog. And I’ll send the letters home: we are helping them.”

Hints at discontent within the Masquerade about some of their harsher policies — a very important seed for the second book. Cattlson is a sexist, but he doesn’t care too much about the ‘drunken sodomite’ or the religiously noncompliant, at least not at this moment.

“We’ll have to ride together, when you return,” she said, trying to be patient, to offer him a salve for his pride. But his shoulders slumped: shame, or something enough like it that he would not answer.

Cattlson reads this as a (false) sexual overture, meant to soothe his pride, and he responds with shame and embarrassment. He’s just been outplayed by an 18-year-old.

Scene Two

When her carriage came harborside she found the marines already ashore, ranked in red like a leash of foxes come up out of a forest of salt and mast, faceless in their enameled steel masks.

You may call it ornate but I like this sentence a lot: it tells us right away that Baru owns it, it has pleasant imagery, the invocation of foxes suggests searching and finding with clever methods (the bank raid), the facelessness enhances the threat.

To her limited surprise, it was Lieutenant Aminata who took her hand and helped her down from the carriage.

I don’t like ‘to her limited surprise’ at all. It’s much too restrained for what should actually be a big character moment! Did Aminata volunteer for this job? Is she here to help, to monitor, to undercut?

Any idiot at the provincial Fiat Bank could ruin the value of the fiat note by printing too many or to few, and without her ledgers, she had no way to keep that idiot in check.

Setting up how inflation works, and putting it in both the reader and Baru’s awareness.

“I don’t need marines for the audit,” she said. “I need marines to tell them not to trifle with the auditor.”

One of Baru’s gifts is claiming authority with decision and confidence. I love seeing her in action.

Scene Three

The Treatymont garrison kept a unit of regulars on guard here, their loyalty doubtless gilded by performances bonuses, but where they’d bristled at the column of Lapetiare marines gathered in the plaza outside…

The Masquerade is very, very careful to keep its standing garrisons on a tight leash. They’re good sources of economic stability, but not a good path to achieve political power. They aren’t as well-equipped or well-trained as the marines. A little corruption to keep them dependent on and loyal to the local technocracy probably doesn’t hurt.

Bel Latheman was a handsome man by Falcresti eyes, young, by all reports talented, and dressed in such exquisite fashion that she took it as a sign of honesty—no one would advertise corruption so blatantly, would they?

Bel is a constant victim in this story, manipulated by women who are much cleverer than he is. He’s sexually harassed, scandalized, disgraced, and generally treated like a pawn. Also note how I try to root words like beautiful/handsome in a specific culture’s context.

She found it hard, very hard, not to savor their faces, each and individually, like candies in a rack…

I like this image quite a lot. And it segues into that jarring, chilling thought about Diline, the creeper teacher.

“…she answered the Principal Factor, signing the palimpsest in Aphalone letters.”

I don’t like this passage much at all! It feels quite cluttered. One doesn’t so much flow along it as hike. Same with ‘he pursed his lips and struggled visibly to keep himself reasonable’. I’m sure I could find a cleaner image that says the same thing.

“Lieutenant Aminata, you will have ample time to search Lapetiare during your return to Falcrest, correct? Keelhaul any marine found with contraband.”

She had no power to dictate military justice, but Aminata saluted smartly nonetheless. Baru smiled coldly at her, and only had to hide the warmth.

Oh, I can’t resist commenting one more passage. I like this a lot, I love Baru’s firm command, I love the faintly sinister order to keelhaul, I love how Baru can’t quite disentangle her gladness at Aminata’s help from her gladness that Aminata takes orders. I love the last sentence.

A pale Stakhi-blood woman in a ruffed bearskin coat offered her beer (the Aurdwynni did not, as a rule, seem to trust their water)…

I love the idea that one of their most basic problems is that they’re all tipsy. But I didn’t play them that way. Ake Sentiamut here actually grew into a minor recurring character in later drafts, when I made a push to include more commoners in the story (this is also when Xate Olake and Xate Yawa gained their firm backstory as commoners who’d usurped a Ducal line). Ake is a very good, kind, thoughtful woman, unlike almost everyone else in this story, and she selflessly tries to protect Bel Latheman here out of pure personal loyalty. Baru could have realized she was a rebel agent at this point, but Baru doesn’t really pick up clues that operate on the grounds of personal loyalty!

I’ve had a sudden fear that I let Ake’s eyes change color across the book. Let’s keep an eye out for it, a hoo ha hoo ha

“She waited in silence for them to set the records out and begin the copying. After a few minutes she found a pen and joined the sullen ranks.”

I love this image: the tyrannical 18-year-old account who’s too impatient and too driven to avoid sitting down with all the clerks and helping out. Imagine her there in her mask, copying with the rest of them.

“Mind your familiarity.”

This is a very basic beat in writing: a character extends an overture, and another character either accepts or rejects it. Baru can’t let herself get close…

Scene Four

In her tower she found Cairdine Farrier napping behind her desk. He woke at the sound of the door, eyes slitted lazily, and considered her in smug silence for a moment. “You wanted an appointment with me?”

The bastard’s playing power games. What’s he been up to? He insists at showing up on his own schedule. (My feeling is that he’s been checking on his rival’s positions in Aurdwynn.) Note that he seems a bit exhausted.

She poured something red as if she’d picked it herself.

Not sure I like this much, but the general idea, Baru enacting confidence so that she can feel confident, is a good one.

“They call him the Phantom Duke, though I suspect he’s just very bashful, probably due to excessive childhood exposure to Yawa—”

You can read this as a jab at Yawa’s current personality, or as an interesting clue: Farrier knows quite a bit about the twins’ childhood. How long has he been pulling strings here? He’s not as old as she is, so it can’t be that far back, but it is suggestive of some deep biographical digging.

“Control. Good.” He drummed his fingers at the edge of the desk. “When you speak of control I know you learned the right lessons from Taranoke. But history must be part of your job.”

I’m sure people are very curious about the ultimate objectives of the Masquerade. They feel that society is trapped in a cycle of reconstruction, decadence, and collapse. The Throne believes it can break the cycle, but only if it can control necessary variables.

“That’s a schoolchild’s answer.”

“You chose the school.”

Baru gets a nice jab in here.

“…or—forbid it—the whispers from east across the Mother of Storms came true.”

This is mentioned, what, twice this book?

“Clever, no? A man who does not know who he is cannot have self-interest. Without family or wealth to lure him from the common good, he would rule fairly. When his term ended and the potion wore off he would return to his station, whether pauper or merchant prince, suffering from or benefiting by his own policies. Behind the Mask, the Emperor could be just.”

I’m very interested in bringing in the science fictional and the alt-historical to fantasy. There are so many things that might have happened in our world, but didn’t because of various historical contingencies. We aren’t trapped in the recapitulation of history. We can also explore what might have been. Read history! Read Wikipedia to find out weird things you didn’t know actually happened!

“The coronation of the Emperor is simpler than that—it involves a pick through the eye socket and a great deal of drool.”

The history of 20th century America is full of medical atrocity, and the casual, sometimes fatal use of transorbital lobotomy is one of the ones that bothers me most profoundly. At one point a surgeon performing a transorbital lobotomy posed for a photo, slipped, and killed his patient. It makes me sick.

He might have sighed in exaggerated relief, in another, more playful mood. But he did not.

An advantage to characters who constantly wear social masks is that you can pull them away to show when shit gets real. Of course, a really gifted character writer like Hilary Mantel could probably have conveyed this sentence without ever having to say it right out!

The candles on the desk danced briefly in the draft.

I have a terrible weakness for conversational beats like this, when causally unrelated action in the scene reflects the emotional state.

“You know,” he said, swallowing thoughtfully, “I have a bet with my associate Hesychast. He believes that your race is fundamentally unable to rule. That your easy island life and culture of unhygienic appetites has left you soft and biddable, and that you are all fit primarily for farming, fishing, and pleasure. He maintains that we rule you because it is your hereditary destiny to serve.”

She set her glass down with soft precision. “And you?”

“I have wagered that you will stop the rebellion,” he said, and, smiling, lifted his glass in toast.

HUGE IMPORTANT PARAGRAPH. The ‘bet’ between Hesychast and Itinerant is a symptom of a long struggle for control of the Masquerade’s destiny in which Baru is now entangled. This is a glimpse at the queens on the chessboard, although not the king — she remains hidden. You also obtain information on Hesychast’s ideology of heredity, and his belief as to how traits become heritable. By implication we see that Farrier’s ideology must be different.

And yet we must remember that all this information is coming through Farrier, who would happily tilt it to his own ends…

Scene Five

When Cairdine Farrier had gone, she found herself sick with the awful need to know.

I think I’ve read concerns that the Masquerade is too evil. We’re barely a decade past Abu Ghraib, guys. We do this shit to people. In the twentieth century, America alone sterilized, experimented on, brainwashed, surveilled, and tortured thousands of its own citizens. We run for-profit prisons. We just let ourselves forget. We let ourselves look away. It happens again. It will keep happening. Recently we’ve discovered that we can arbitrarily kill groups of people in foreign countries for the crime of gathering in public as long as we label them ‘military age males’ and call it a ‘signature strike’.

This scene entered the story pretty late, in drafts. I felt that I’d let the Masquerade’s horror become too abstract and expository, and that we needed a confrontation with the specific methods of psychological control that Baru is making deals with. And yet keep in mind as you watch it that you are seeing this from Baru’s perspective, not that of a 21st-century humanitarian armed with the historical knowledge of fascism and totalitarianism.

She went to the Cold Cellar unannounced, white-masked, gloved, flashing the technocrat’s sign to the gate guard, printing her mark in the logbooks. Passed through layers of vigilance and examination into white acid-washed walls concrete, clean, buttered in lamplight…

…Near the surgical theaters a quartet of musicians played oboe and lute. A sign by them: please do not disrupt the soothing music.

Isn’t this horrifying? The music, the clean walls, the nice light, but with acid and surgery behind it. This terrifies me on a deeper level than a filthy hospital out of Jacob’s Ladder. It’s an institutional horror.

I think you can see, from the prose style, that I wrote this later in the drafting process. ‘Buttered in lamplight’ has a sumptuousness I don’t think I used very much on the first draft. Butter is an image associated with Purity Cartone, foreshadowing his arrival.

A gaunt Stakhi commoner, strapped to a metal chair, watching nude men approach and depart through the far door.

She’s undergoing simple conditioning to associate men who look like her husband with pleasant stimuli. The conditioning will probably extinguish rapidly once she’s out of treatment. Again, I could have shown a man subjected to Masquerade conditioning and sexual policing here, but I got jittery at the prospect of parading naked women around and felt the scene would fall into objectification and male gaze.

“She volunteered for fidelity conditioning to repair her marriage,” the functionary explained. “Wise. Two of her social proximates reported on her behavior…”

This level of surveillance and collaboration just isn’t sustainable in the long term. Society will corrode. As the Masquerade gains control over a territory, it relaxes its harsher discipline and teaches the society to police itself, internalizing these norms and enforcing them with social pressure. Aurdwynn has been recalcitrant, and Xate Yawa is really doubling down on the harsher measures.

“If that fails, we’ll proceed to paired-icon behavioral coaxing…”

I’d need to check my notes to remember exactly what this is, but it sounds like a form of operant conditioning.

“…manual stimulation, or sterile proxy conjugation…”

Ew. I want to talk more about the research behind this, but I don’t actually want to talk about the topic.

Baru found herself grateful for the mask. “What about surgical intervention?” she asked, thinking of Aminata’s warning, of the nauseating threat. “To render conjugation joyless? Do you conduct those here?”

Tain Hu had looked into her eyes, smiling, her lips drawn like a recurve bow, the motion of her breath slow and assured in her shoulders and chest, and she had not seemed at all nauseated or afraid—

But that had been a trap. Baru stamped on the image and the thought with silent, urgent efficiency.

Baru has been targeted by Masquerade conditioning, coupling her sexual orientation with the threat of violence. That coupling fires here, and Baru responds by trying not to think about how much she’s into Tain Hu. Yet I also wanted to make it clear that this is not exclusively a punishment for queer women: it’s also applied to the ‘licentious’ woman. Later in the book we see castration used against a man to control his sexual behavior.

“Aurdwynni family structure requires strict corrective action. Especially among the Maia bloodlines.”

The Masquerade believes that correctly organized families and nuclear reproduction are involved in the maintenance of stable society, for reasons the second book should really open up. The ancient ‘bicameral’ Maia gender system was deeply gender-essentialist, in that it ascribed very different traits to men and women and cared a lot about fertility, but these traits did not produce a simply matriarchal or patriarchal power structure. The Maia weren’t laid-back about sex, but they weren’t repressed about it, either.

Collected by social hygiene profile.

Reported by social proximate.

Failed undercover loyalty spot check.

Reported by deep cover informant.

Complied with enticement check.

I worked in a truck-loading facility once. Each of us worked the same truck every day, and that truck went to the same places. A main conveyer feed circulated packages, and when the computer saw that the package had to go to a certain place, it fired the package down to a loading bay. You loaded the package into the truck. If you failed to keep up, your bay’s chute would back up into the main feed and shut down the whole building. A siren would go off next to your bay.

You were never supposed to load a package that didn’t belong in your truck. But there were people called salters whose job was to sneak around and throw bad packages into your chute. If you missed them, you could be sent home without pay.

Anyway, even rereading this passage I find it chilling.

“Rebellion,” the mask said, as the man began to shriek. “Revolt. Devena. Himu. Wydd—”

This too.

“You should be more careful, Your Excellence,” he admonished her. Passing lamplight caught his blue jungle-crow eyes. “I could’ve taken you into Northarbor and given you to a diver with a knife. The last Accountant I drove came to such a fate.

How many of you caught that he was Xate Olake on your first pass through?

I like this scene, I think it’s full of interesting sentences and it simmers with tension. That makes me glad! I hope you enjoyed.

11 thoughts on “The Traitor Baru Cormorant read-along: Chapter 5!

  1. Khizan

    “Cattlson’s speech after this paragraph, which I am too lazy to type out here, is important to explaining why the Masquerade is so successful: it can offer material gains to those who accept its hegemony. It’s hard to understate how powerful clean water, safe roads, good preservatives, and inoculation can be to quality of life. And when they pair those miracles with a set of behavioral guidelines…it’s rather like someone showing up with a religion that doesn’t just offer eternal life, but actually provides tangible gains right away.”

    I really wish you’d shown more of this part of the Masquerade. A few more mentions along the lines of “They’re bastards, but at least we’re not shitting ourselves to death from cholera anymore” would have really helped my immersion.

    Reply
    1. Seth Post author

      Keep an eye out as we move forward. I think you’ll see it mentioned, explicitly or implicitly, a surprising number of times. Muire Lo says almost exactly what you did just there!

      Reply
    2. Melvin

      All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

      Reply
  2. Khizan

    I don’t think they’re, strictly speaking, too evil in and of themselves.

    To use America as an example, America has sterilized and experimented on and tortured its own citizens. Our prisons are run as business, by businesses. We kill non-citizens in other countries because we can and it’s more convenient to do it that way. We do tons of shit that is straight up no-questions overtly fucking evil.

    But… I’ve got the internet and electricity. I’ve got roads. I’ve got (begrudging) access to modern medicine. I’ve got ample food, and I’ve got a national infrastructure that allows that food to travel vast distances before it arrives in my city. I’m a straight white male, so I don’t even face any notable social prejudices. To be quite honest, I’m kept comfortable enough so that I’m willing to ignore all the fucking horrible stuff America does. Yeah, it sucks, and it would be great if it just stopped sucking without my having to do anything about it aside from voting, because I’m really too comfortable over here to want to rock the boat for the sake of some people halfway across the world that I don’t know and don’t care about.

    My problem with the Masquerade is that I see the first half and not the second. I get all the horror, but the benefits get that speech by the governor, a comment from Muire Lo about sewers, and I think somebody mentions dentists somewhere. And that’s about it that I can recall. I’d have felt if I could see that their dickishness was counterbalanced by genuine benefits to its citizens.

    Reply
    1. aantia

      Khizan:
      We haven’t actually seen any of the core parts of the masquerade, just the newly-conquered provinces. The citizens of important cities will get the full benefit of being in an economically successful, expanding, advanced empire, and presumably be happy with the status quo.

      Reply
  3. MaxL

    FWIW, my problem with the Masquerade isn’t that it’s too evil. My problem is that the Masquerade is much more effective than it has any right to be. It’s a mashup of various historical empires and totalitarian regimes that is, as far as we’re told, significantly more able than any historical empire or regime actually was or is. It appears to suffer no meaningful foreign policy setbacks. At the same time, it’s able to export the Stasi into its newly-conquered territories (and then replace its own security apparatus with the locals’ own home-grown apparatus). At the same time, it’s able to keep secret the fact that the emperor is a lobotomized figurehead and that the state is governed by a shadow cabal of hyper-competent manipulators. And all of this is done with a technology base centuries less developed than our own.

    Which isn’t really congruent with the rest of the world building. Taranoke and, especially, Aurdwynn, are not nearly so perfect. They feel scuffed and lived-in and real. The economic and logistical problems Baru grapples with, the web of resources and dependency and so on? Plausible, believable.

    As opposed to an invisible cabal running an empire whose efficacy is unmatched in human history, which becomes less plausible and less believable when situated in a world that is otherwise so grounded.

    Caveat: entirely possible I missed something(s) that pointed to weaknesses in the seemingly-perfect Masquerade. Entirely possible the point is that Baru missed those weaknesses. If so, I look forward to hearing about it!

    Also: I should note that while in retrospect I think that the Masquerade is entirely too good at being bad, I didn’t notice while reading. And, indeed, loved the book to itty bitty pieces.

    Reply
  4. Joanna

    MaxL, you crystallized some of my feelings about the Masquerade as well. There is one thread in the Sword and Laser book club discussion that compares it to 1984 . I definitely felt as much because when I first read 1984, I had no idea how anyone could overthrow that government. It seemed too powerful. I also had that feeling about the Masquerade. Although now, reading some of your comments, Mr. Dickonson, it looks like I didn’t take into account that this level of social control might not be stable over a long period of time.

    Here’s the link to the Baru Cormorant discussion, if you are curious, Mr. Dickonson. I will disclose in advance that I was not shy about saying how I felt it left me depressed. I did not like it more and more the farther I went. But now that I’ve had a little bit of distance, I think it was well worth reading and I am fascinated to read more of this post-mortem discussion on your part. But it did take me like a week after to get over the nihilistic funk.
    https://www.goodreads.com/topic/group_folder/287834?group_id=4170

    Reply
    1. Seth Post author

      There have been a lot of locally very successful governments in human history! The problem is whether they stand the test of time.

      Thank you for the link! I can understand feeling nihilistic and depressed. I’m going to spoil something that will come up towards the end of this read-along now, so you can look away if you like.

      Remember the Masquerade trick with the prison? You give them a little hope and you take it away, over and over, until they’re conditioned to believe escape is always an illusion? The book is set up the same way. The question at the end is whether Baru (and the reader with her) has succumbed to the conditioning, or whether she (and we) can still escape.

      Reply
  5. Justine

    I just find this read-along, and wanted to say that I found it fascinating. It looks abandoned but I would love to hear more.

    Reply
  6. Pictar

    “This is a glimpse at the queens on the chessboard, although not the king — she remains hidden”.

    Intriguing! I feel like this read-along needs a read-along.

    Reply

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