Now that the book’s out in the wild, I want to talk about how very clever and stupid I am.
Join me in dissecting The Traitor Baru Cormorant, chapter by chapter! I’ll talk about my prose decisions, characterization, and behind-the-scenes secrets, like which chapters I wrote in a drunken panic and who I want you to write fanfiction about.
Spoilers for the WHOLE BOOK abound!
This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.
We open with an epigram. I like epigrams! This is doing a lot of work. It warns readers who aren’t in the mood for a dark read to flee. It claims that truth is painful, and that pain can establish truth. Readers should be suspicious: is something painful inherently more valuable and truthful? What about love and joy? This epigram is an act of deceit, establishing one of Baru’s character flaws.
A note on structure. Before I set a single word down in Baru Cormorant, I blocked out three acts, each of ten chapters, each of about four 1000 word scenes (subject to change). This let me know when I had to key up tension, and when to key down. I think a lot about arcs and the cycle of tension, and I hope that makes the book compelling. In each structural unit I try to map out an arc.
CHAPTER ONE — We Meet Baru
(You can read this chapter online for free at Tor.com.)
The Masquerade sent its favorite soldiers to conquer Taranoke…
The first page of the book focuses on Baru, the Masquerade, then Baru again. We are with her, counting the ships. But we are also arriving with the Masquerade, seeing her do things that will make her valuable to us. We are colonizing Baru, shaping her into a character who tells us a story, and she manipulates us by focusing on things we’ll find interesting.
watching firebearer frigates heel in the aurora light…
I’m torn about this flash-forward. I wanted to tell readers, hey, don’t worry, this book will have action! But it’s cowardly to jump forward and then back, just for excitement. And the sentence might be overloaded. Firebearer or aurora, perhaps not both?
the kelp for ash, the ash meant for glass
The Ashen Sea is actually named for the useful ash you can get from burning its plentiful kelp.
Taranoke is meant to be its own creation, not an analog for any Earthly place. But I can see why people start with Hawaii as a basis, with names like this. Another major landmark near Taranoke is the Navel, a creepy blue hole.
callused hand pressed against his husband’s bare strength
It was a struggle to characterize these two in very little space. I wrestled with this sentence because I didn’t want to code Solit as effeminate and Salm as masculine. I think it turned out okay.
loved her mother and her father dearly, but she loved to know things just a small measure more, and she had recently discovered cunning.
Even at age seven, Baru’s unable to disentangle her emotional life from her desire for knowledge, which becomes her desire for power. Poor Baru! Note also that Baru is already an active agent, manipulating the plot. One of the design tenets of Baru’s character is that she is highly agentic.
the Urunoki alphabet
A descendant of Maia Urun, just as the people of Taranoke are descendants of the Tu Maia. They settled Taranoke while trying to find Oriati Mbo, ahead of the first wave of militant Maia expansionism. Were there prior inhabitants on Taranoke, cruelly displaced? I don’t know!
worrying about the treaty again
It was very important to me that Taranoke, while a very nice place, not read as a pre-lapsarian paradise full of innocent people. They have politics, international relations, and a sense of self-preservation.
her mother’s dictionary
One of the few pieces of characterization Pinion gets. Although she’s a huntress, she also loves books and knowledge. I have a bunch of scenes with her interacting with Solit, but they didn’t make this book. Family configurations on Taranoke are flexible, but in this case all three of the spouses are in love.
A Primer in Aphalone
The Falcrest trade language. It’s rendered in the text as a fairly Anglic language, because I want to make it the most familiar-seeming to the reader, so as to seduce and implicate the reader in Falcrest’s perspective. Mwa ha ha!
Where the sea curled up in the basalt arms of the Iriad cove…
Sometimes I get nervous that my prose is slipping and I try to write a Cat Valente sentence.
drummers sounded in the warmth and the light
I worry this reads as too generically tribal, but I really like drums. Taranoke’s fairly small, flat social units are prone to gossip and bickering, but really good at building inviting social environments.
white-sailed Masquerade merchant ships
Building that association between the Masquerade and cleanliness, purity, astringence. The black = evil connection is cliched and tired. Let’s do evil white.
She tried determinedly to count them and keep all the varieties straight
Baru’s gifts actually aren’t in raw mathematical operations, although she’s quite good at them. But she does have an excellent working memory span — the ability to hold information online, in the brain’s workspace, and manipulate it without losing it. Most people are limited to 5-7 items. If you can ‘chunk’ the items, the way we do with phone numbers, you can hold more.
the shapes that Baru imagined when she read about panthers
As a trade hub, Taranoke learns a lot about the world, although some of it is very fanciful. The Oriati love tall tales.
Baru, pay attention!
Baru is good at learning, but not quite as good at being taught. She works best with an intrinsic motivation. Later we see her treating history and geography as dull…but once they’re keys to her forward progress, she picks them up rapidly.
hard coin and reef pearl
Gotta get that hard currency theme rolling. The Taranoki use a lot of different currencies for trade, but they prefer those with intrinsic value on any market…until now.
the different fold of eyelids and flat of his nose gave him away…stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat.
The ‘unmarked state’ is the person we assume we’re reading about when we don’t get any physical descriptions. For most Americans, it’s a white American male. But Baru’s unmarked state is a Taranoki person of indistinct gender. So all the appearance tags used to distinguish populations in Baru’s world have to be relative to Taranoke…which can be quite a trick when we want to describe what a Taranoki looks like!
A key goal here was to establish, first, that neither the Falcresti or the Taranoki look like any racial group on Earth. They aren’t fantasy French or fantasy Maori or fantasy, well, anything. Why do I care so much about this? Because racial groups on earth are — yes, for real — social constructs. There are no clear genetic dividing lines. There’s no reason they should appear on another world.
Similarly, the ‘Falcresti’ racial group is a political construct. They’re actually quite a diverse bunch. Cairdine Farrier here is ‘classically Falcresti’, in that he resembles a person born in the middle latitudes of their turf.
Why are they bald?
Baru’s first interaction with Cairdine Farrier is her refusal to reply to his question.
made their fishermen friend blush
They’re hitting on him. Sexual agency is a pretty important subtextual theme. So is the construction of gender roles — the fisherman is used to a culture where sex is a matter of mutual chemistry, not propositions.
heavy brows, like fortresses to guard his eyes
Farrier in particular is marked by a lot of eye imagery.
“What was I thinking, trying to sell broadcloth here? I’ll go home a pauper.”
“Oh, no,” Baru assured him.
Farrier is able to engage Baru by giving her an opportunity to display knowledge, implicitly granting her power.
‘Palimpsest’ by Stross and Palimpsest by Valente are both very good.
Baru caught the fly and crushed it.
Setting up Baru’s physical dexterity, an enormous red herring which I build up a lot so that readers will expect her to win a swordfight or shoot someone. If Baru’s success ever depends on such crude physical violence, she’s truly at wit’s end.
Then she asked about something she already knew, because it was useful to hide her wit…
Baru loses this ability as she ages, a symptom of her rising inner rage and pride. She tries it again when she gets to Aurdwynn and fails to follow through. Baru has a very hard time concealing her own talent.
“We’re here as friends.”
The bastard believes it. Farrier has been engaged in a war of ideas against another Falcresti luminate for decades now, each pushing a different philosophy of how best to help the world. Both are grotesque.
“Because if I understand my figures, that means you are taking all the things we use to trade with others, and giving us paper that is only good with you.”
This is a more complicated scheme than Baru probably realizes, since it only works if the Taranoki want the paper money. How did the Masquerade get the engine turning? How did they convince Baru’s people that paper money was worth having, if the Masquerade ships prefer to buy with paper but sell for gold and gem? They must have got the hook in somehow, but Baru was too young to catch it.
At that his mouth pursed, as if the idea of fathers troubled him.
Even for the institutionally homophobic Falcresti, Farrier is a homophobe (and his homophobia is influential in driving that institutional homophobia). It’s a shame he’s in charge here. Falcrest’s ideological homophobia derives from their beliefs about heritable behavior: in their ugly competitive worldview they see queerness as a condition that can enter the germ line, hurting the fitness of entire populations. The queer rights movement within Falcrest has made some headway by arguing that homosexuality should be permitted as long as the people involved have no children. This is still a pretty shitty position to be in, especially if you’re bi, and Baru wouldn’t want to settle for it.
because a cormorant was the only thing that made me stop crying
Again, one of Baru’s character flaws. She has trouble drawing strength from human connections.
“You’re going to have a brilliant future. Come see me again. Ask for Cairdine Farrier.”
Nasty bastard. Farrier’s motives are noble, from his own perspective: he believes that genius can come from anywhere, and that the Empire has a responsibility to identify bright children and hit them with the very best education and indoctrination. Farrier’s own credibility depends on his ability to find good students.
as if he had swallowed his own snot
Gross, and an authorial vote for Farrier’s hypocrisy, since the hygiene-obsessed Falcresti would be disgusted at the image.
a sleek red-sailed frigate
I really love boats.
climb the volcano and watch their proceedings
Baru probably doesn’t make it too far up the slope.
But father Salm did not buckle on his shield…father Solit fed her no pineapple and asked for no details.
These faintly singsong passages are expressions of Baru’s youth and her connection to Taranoke. They grow rarer as she moves farther away and gets older.
“When can you start smithing again?”
Economic turmoil on Taranoke began before Baru was even aware of it. Some of it was caused by Masquerade intervention in trade routes and the fallout from the Armada War. Although her parents are a huntress, a blacksmith, and a shield-bearer, none of them are working those jobs right now.
Clearly there had been some mistake: her parents had been happier last year than this.
Baru loves her parents! But looks at that relationship as her ability to control her parents’ happiness. Oh, Baru.
Baru had always been taught not to speak to plainsmen
Again, it was vital to me that Taranoke have its own internal politics. It wasn’t a perfect place before the Falcresti arrived. But they do know how to get their chisels into any gap. There’s probably another Masquerade mission on the plains, stirring up trouble.
She had skin the color of good earth, wide lips, and brilliant blue eyes like a jungle crow.
I wrestle endlessly with the tags I use to describe skin tone, since I don’t want to use commodities or crops. I often fail. Anyway, this is Cairdine Farrier’s bodyguard, who is from Aurdwynn.
Baru kept the coin.
A bit of childhood defiance, and other foreshadowing, too. The Masquerade’s monetary policy depends on sitting on hard currency like coins. Already Baru is using Masquerade methods!
the red-sailed frigate in the harbor
Red for surgery.
Two open eyes in a mask, circled in clasped hands.
The Masquerade banner is meant to evoke modern symbols of unity and globalization. Their patronizing for-the-good-of-all-of-us rhetoric definitely draws on some of the shittier parts of modern life. Later we will hear that masks help make life more fair by hiding identity, an echo of frustrating ‘we should all be color blind’ arguments for ‘ignoring’ race.
Everything began to fall.
Baru doesn’t know it, but Farrier is under pressure to secure Taranoke. This is a messier process than he’d like. He wants the digestion of Taranoke to be entirely peaceful and joyous.
Pinion grew distant and temperamental, her loves overshadowed by a terrible brooding anger…
This is a kind of characterization, both individual and cultural. Pinion doesn’t bear the brunt of childbearing, and her culture doesn’t expect it of her. Taranoke’s social networks can raise children communally, so parents are expected to be distracted by passions and projects.
Her second cousin Lao oldest among them and already growing into a long-limbed stork of a person…
Cousin Lao is actually quite a well-developed character! She ends up in Falcrest. Her worldview is like Baru’s in many ways, but she faces different challenges: everyday sexism, racism, and harassment, double standards, patronizing attention from those who want to help her. Baru deals with great power issues, but Lao has to fight the day-to-day battle, trying to live a happy and fulfilling life in a world stacked against her.
the soggy people from Taranoke’s eastern plains
I like coming up with insults.
the power to make Lao hug her knees and stare at Baru in terror and admiration
They’re second cousins. Baru has a bit of a crush, but it’s (of course) conflated with her desire for social power and appreciation. Baru sees herself as valuable and admirable because she has knowledge, not because Lao cares about her for her own worth.
Baru cracked her throwing stone against the stone beneath her, to make them leap. “And then the plainsmen go home to sulk, and we sell them textiles at outrageous prices.”
I love this paragraph. I like the tactile beat with the stone, and I think Baru’s idea of winning is funny.
And the Masquerade garrison masked and columned behind them, banners flying, churning the road to mud.
The Masquerade’s rigid organization carries pretty banners, but turns what’s underfoot to gross mud! Subtle, Seth. Real subtle.
men who would not add their seed to a plainside woman’s child
The practice of partible paternity on Taranoke is based on research about the Amazon Basin. They believe that a child can have multiple fathers. You’ll often hear people argue that men are evolutionarily hard-wired for promiscuity and women for monogamy, ‘obviously’, because women ‘can only have one child at a time and need a mate to help raise and protect it.’ This is bullshit, for lots of reasons! One reason among many, from an evolutionary perspective, is that women can benefit from having multiple partners to provide social resources. Another is that having children with many fathers can help produce fit offspring. Yet another is that human behavior is only loosely coupled to our evolutionary history!
Without Masquerade traders in harbor the paper money was worthless, except it wasn’t, because everyone wanted to have it when the trade winds picked up again, and bartered outrageously for even a few slips.
By selling exclusive and valuable goods at competitive rates, and by buying up other forms of money, the Masquerade has made its currency scarce and desirable, leading to a bidding war — everyone is willing to barter more and more of their stuff to get some Masquerade dolla, in the hope that this money will get them even more stuff come spring.
The wool-merchant Cairdine Farrier came in person…
The bastard knows that two of Baru’s parents are gone, of course.
“Various catalogues”—his smile held—”of sin and social failure.”
Masquerade society was born in revolt against a brutal failed state. They see it as their mission to prevent the collapse of civilization. This is a self-justifying cause, and it enables unthinkable brutality. Utopian causes breed dystopian methods.
questions she had barely begun to form — what is the world and who runs it and more
Baru loves her parents oh so dearly. But in a small, brilliant, mercenary way, her loyalty to them has been subverted. She no longer sees them as the ultimate sources of knowledge.
(She wondered about this often, later, and decided it was none of that. He had seen the fire on the horizon and wanted his daughter safe.)
I was willing to break chronology with this parenthetical to remind the reader that Baru has a lot of blind spots. She doesn’t always see what’s really going on around her, or say everything she’s feeling. I use a lot of this negative space to communicate, so I need to signal the reader to pay attention to what she might not be narrating.
Scientific Society and Incrasticism
Incrasticism: for tomorrow.
sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance
Sodomite, of course, doesn’t work since there’s no Sodom, but I’m willing to trust the reader to understand that it’s just a good translation. The Masquerade’s hateful ways are distinct from many of those we’ve seen historically on Earth. It was really important to me to signal that Baru’s world hasn’t been nasty, that homophobia and misogyny aren’t inevitable and universal. We see the Masquerade constructing its ideology around Baru. They believe they have scientific, not religious, cause to protect populations from unsafe behavior, including violence, unsanitary conditions, a lack of education, marital infidelity, homosexuality, and more. They are total fuckheads, and I do hate them. But I am obliged to look at them through Baru’s eyes, which are vulnerable to cult programming. And make no mistake: this school uses cult techniques. Cutting students off from loved ones, joy-bombing them about how special they are…it’s hideous and effective. In social psychology we learn chilling things about the power of the situation. The school is a tailor-built situation designed to make children defect from their own culture.
Falcrest in the east and running south near Taranoke and Oriati Mbo, onward past lands with many names, all the way north to Aurdwynn and then back to Falcrest again.
I’m awful at direction, but I need myself and the reader to have a good mental map of the Ashen Sea, so here’s my easy as time setup: Aurdwynn at noon, Falcrest at 3, Oriati Mbo at 6, strange lands at 9. Taranoke around the middle.
And Falcrest. It must be full of secrets to learn.
If the source of truth is not on Taranoke, Baru has to get to it.
A gentle man the color of whitefish
The Falcresti are pretty heterogenous.
every child of promise will sit the civil service exam
I knew the Falcresti, being technocratic utopians, would try to boil everyone down to numbers and fit them into their correct spot. The particulars of the civil service exam aren’t based on any one historical example, but they certainly did draw on life as a student in modern America. I think of the Masquerade as a whole culture stuck in that two weeks of freshman orientation when everybody still thinks SAT scores matter.
Does the Emperor live in Falcrest?
Everyone expects an Emperor, so of course the Masquerade provides. Rather like the false eye spots on some moths.
“Who can recite the Hierarchic Qualm?”
You don’t know what the Hierarchic Qualm is yet, but later, I hope, you will realize how early Baru began to prepare for her mission.
“One male father…one female mother.”
Another dirty trick here, giving the Masquerade the biological truth. I did this because we often here arguments about biology and nature, explaining why society should be organized this way and not that way. But the biology of this situation doesn’t actually change anything! It doesn’t matter at all. What matters is the way the fact is used to propagate social norms.
Pinion came home alone.
The story of The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a story of Baru being deployed into three stock fantasy narratives to subvert them and turn them to her own ends. These are the Colonizers Arrive story, the Feudal Power Game story, and a third story, which is Baru’s final challenge. The first chapter of the book offers a preview and warning for each story, so readers can bail out if they don’t want to get involved. The Colonizers have Arrived, of course, they have played the Feudal Power Game in setting plainsmen against harborside, and now in the third story, Pinion and Solit lose Salm. Baru will face down each of these stories across the course of the book, and find her own complex ways to negotiate them.
The Masquerade forces its citizens to enact the stories of their own oppression. This is all meta and shit.
“You. None of these men have husbands. They hate husbands.”
To make it clear exactly why Salm was targeted. This is a hate crime, on the surface a random act of ugly violence. But it is also the Masquerade creating narratives. Are you in a queer relationship? We’re going to break it. That’s how the world works, the Masquerade argues.
Mother Pinion struck her in a rage
I wish I’d been able to do this scene more justice, but pacing didn’t permit. (I wish I’d been able to spend a whole book on this story!) Note that the fight is triggered by Baru asking Masquerade questions, bringing their stories into the family home. She runs sobbing back to the white walls and the masked banner, taking literal refuge in the ideological construct.
“The Farrier man…will not let you be harmed.”
Lest we give Baru too much credit for her choice to infiltrate the Masquerade beast…note that Solit, at least, is entirely willing to separate himself from his beloved daughter if it can help protect her. Baru puts herself into the machine. Solit puts his daughter in. Both are very brave.
I must learn why this happened to Salm, Baru thought. I must understand it, so I can stop it from ever happening again. I will not cry. I will understand.
Here Baru resolves to break the story the Masquerade is telling. But will she able to hold to that goal? Will she end up performing this very story herself? Is that defeat, or victory, or some of both?
“Mother, why do they come here and make treaties? Why do we not go to them? Why are they so powerful?
Baru going full Guns, Germs, and Steel, enunciating her need to understand all the contingencies that brought history to this point, so that she can alter them. Also making a formal severance from her family as the source of world-knowledge, completing this chapter’s arc: from Baru on the beach, counting ships and birds to impress her mother, to Baru in the school, learning Masquerade philosophy to save the world.