The Traitor Baru Cormorant read-along: Chapter 2!

As usual, spoilers for the whole book are in play. Come see the person behind the curtain!

Catch up with Chapter One! And you can read this chapter free online, courtesy of Tor.com.

CHAPTER TWO — Baru’s First Treason

Scene One

She lost her father Salm, and from this she nearly lost her mother, too.

“You cannot believe what they teach you.” mother Pinion hissed in her ear. (They smiled together at the chaperones who brought Baru to visit her home, which seemed strangely squalid now.) “You must remember what they did to Salm, and give them nothing. The families are taking secret council. We will find a way to drive them back into the sea.”

I’m writing this from a depressive jag, so forgive me if I’m a little more self-critical than usual — I always take this shit out on myself. I’m not a huge fan of this chapter opening. I like the first sentence, since I really love providing readers with a map of the emotional jeopardy.

But this is a complicated conversation that deserves a full scene. Pinion is stiff and doctrinaire here. I wish I could’ve taken this opportunity to illuminate her as a full person with a lively, charismatic voice.

Still, it’s good to see the Taranoki talking about resistance. They don’t stop fighting once Baru leaves. She hardly ever thinks about the facts of life on Taranoke once she’s gone, which is one of those characterization-by-negative-space things: if she’s doing all this for her home, why is she losing sight of it as a true place?

“You don’t understand how huge they are.”

This is a really interesting line. Baru sees the Masquerade as huge and powerful. To mother Pinion — oh, hold on! The reason it’s ‘mother Pinion’ and not ‘Mother Pinion’ is because I wanted to de-emphasize the mother title to accentuate the fluid nature of gender roles on Taranoke, putting the weight of the name on Pinion more than mother.

Anyway: to mother Pinion, the Masquerade is a young, untested government. It might topple in ten years. To Baru, who’s seen the inside, the Masquerade is an ideological construct that plans to replicate itself in the minds and flesh of every human being…no wonder she’s more afraid of them.

“Your father lives.”

Pinion is convinced Salm was taken and is being kept alive. What do you, with your knowledge of Masquerade tactics, think has been done with him, oh reader mine?

“Baru looked at her mother, at Pinion’s eyes red with fatigue, her shoulders bunched in anger, and wondered what had happened to the woman who was a thunderbolt, a storm cloud, a panther. Of all things Pinion looked most like a wound.”

Baru’s disappointment with her mother is that she isn’t using her pain and sorrow correctly.

The argument grew between them like a reef.

A cheap device, but effective, I suppose. I wish this argument could’ve had more time to grow. More words to spend on her relationship with her mother. I was so concerned with pacing.

I like that a reef does actually grow.

Dress this way, never that way. Befriend her, or him—but not him. She liked his advice better than Pinion’s, because it was full of things to accomplish now rather than things to avoid forever.

Baru’s seduction towards the Masquerade is propelled by her own desire for agency. She wants to climb, build, make, speak, learn. Farrier uses this to attempt to teach her correct Incrastic behavior. He uses behavioral goals as bait.

“I can go to another land and make little girls stop reading at unjustly early hours?”

Baru being adorable. I like her a lot as a person. We wouldn’t get along at all in real life, I’d be so intimidated. This is one of those lines that I don’t think would work well spoken aloud, but as a stylistic piece on the page it conveys tone well.

“That’s why it’s an Empire of Masks, dear. When you wear a mask, your wits matter.”

So superficially compelling. And yet it’s the same argument people make for ‘gender-blindness’ or ‘race-blindness’. It’s a cheat. Real justice comes when your wits are all that matter even unmasked. Again, the Masquerade’s evil is drawn from challenges we face today in our struggle for a truly egalitarian world.

“You don’t wear a mask.”

Poor Baru. Farrier is, in a figurative sense, the very template of the mask.

“He carried his weight like a thoughtful provision, stored in preparation.”

Modern life is hard on the fat. No reason a society on another world should have the same prejudices. Baru’s associations with heavy people are mostly pragmatic, not aesthetic.

It had not occurred to her to want the impossible until she lost father Salm, first to that awful doctrine, and then to death.

Note the Masquerade’s actualization of ideology. They teach that queer couples are unnatural and untrue. Then they use violence to teach that queerness leads to tragedy. This story is Baru’s final boss, the Masquerade’s ultimate gambit for control over her: trying to convince her that she lives in a world where she cannot obtain any happiness as a queer woman.

Perhaps the death of fathers could be outlawed. Perhaps doctrines could be rewritten.

Baru sets an objective: no more violence against the queer.

“I want to be powerful,” she said.

But the way she voices that objective is the more general I want to be able to shape the world to my own desire. No wonder Farrier smiles fondly. He is happy to empower Baru. What he wants to shape are her desires, what she thinks of as a good world.

Scene Two

Parliament, and the Metademe, and the Morrow Ministry…

The civil government, the agency of Incrastic doctrine which handles eugenics and the study of biology, and Falcrest’s foreign intelligence service. All major players in the second novel.

In broader terms this passage helps firm up Baru’s goals. She’s like a gun aimed at Falcrest, and these chapters are her powder.

a ship at a fraying moor

For a long time this was ‘a ship at fraying moor’, which is more poetic, but more confusing. I miss it a little. Note the Masquerade’s use of uncertainty to enhance unease. They don’t leave Salm’s head on a stick, they vanish him. That way Baru will keep thinking about him.

And when he made a gentle face, a face for blandishments and reassurance, she screamed into the space before the lie: “You brought this with you!”

I love Baru’s ferocity. I prize it and I take strength from it. I would like to write (and have written) dozens of scenes of her just hanging out in her day to day life and making a mess of social situations. Anyway, the plague: this is crude biowarfare, intentionally unleashed by the Falcresti, who identify carrier animals (and people) who can safely transport live disease.

And he looked at her with open eyes, the bone of his heavy brow a bastion above, the flesh of his face wealthy below, and in those eyes she glimpsed an imperium, a mechanism of rule building itself from the work of so many million hands. Remorseless not out of cruelty or hate but because it was too vast and too set on its destiny to care for the small tragedies of its growth.

I love this passage, which is doubly good, because it was a very late addition, and I used to believe I did all my best work in rough draft and could only produce dribble in the later drafts. I was wrong! Whew.

Note the layout of Farrier’s face. A bastion above. A wealth below. Two eyes in the center. Sound familiar? Aurdwynn to the north, Oriati Mbo huge and rich to the south, Falcrest and Taranoke between them…although I suppose Taranoke is more around the nose.

“When the joining is done there will be a sea for you to swim in.”

The fucker. I am obliged, as a writer, to inhabit Farrier and to empathize with him as I write him. I do understand where he’s coming from. But as a citizen of the world I do despise him.

“…a whole flock of new faces, including a lanky black-skinned midshipwoman who couldn’t have had more than two years on Baru but got to wear a sword. Baru was too embarrassed of her accented Aphalone to say hello, to ask how an Oriati girl had made herself an officer in the service of the Masquerade so soon after the great Armada War between the two powers.”

I intentionally underplay Baru’s sexuality for most of the book, partly because she’s a disciplined person, but mostly because she’s attracted to very different things than we expect. Note the markers that draw her to Aminata: her height, her sword, her mastery of Aphalone, her success at ingratiating herself with the Masquerade. Baru, you mess. This sentence tangles up teenage crushes with weapons with language with a great war with matters of world power, and so I consider it a successful incarnation, taking the great themes of the work and making them live in the prose.

Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.

Asch and Milgram at work, if you know social psychology — conformity with the environment is a powerful force. The Taranoki are taught a generalized respect for elders, which helps their loose social groups function. The Masquerade leverages this by replacing the elders with teachers and putting their ideology into the elder-authority channel.

“My special tutor…is a pervert….He thinks I’m a tribadist.”

One of the first of many moral crises I had while writing this book. I didn’t want to write any on-screen sexual violence. But I wanted to respect the voices I heard saying ‘colonialism targets women’s bodies, women’s bodies are terrain for colonial violence.’ I wanted to confront Baru with a stark choice between Falcresti and Taranoki ideals…but it felt so shitty to put the harm on Cousin Lao, when this wasn’t Lao’s story. I didn’t want to make a device of her. And yet subtext in turn seemed to demand that Baru be given power over someone elses suffering…

I chose to focus on the mechanisms of resistance that the women in the school develop. I wanted to focus not on the action of the oppressor, but on the fact that even within this oppressive system, complex patterns of resistance and defiance have emerged. I wish, again, that I had been able to give Lao more voice. Next book, I suppose.

The Imperial Republic had been born in revolt against a degenerate aristocracy, their bodies and minds twisted…by centuries of unhygienic mating. From this Falcrest had learned the value of sanitary behavior and carefully planned inheritance.

This is a very important passage in the understanding of Falcresti ideology.

The Falcresti have an operational theory of evolution, but it is skewed by a terrible, terrible error. (I leave that to you to deduce!) Worse yet, it is rationalization for existing prejudice. Just as you see people today arguing that patriarchy is explained by evolutionary psychology and biological truth*, the Falcresti have created a program of eugenics and bioscience that conveniently enshrines in ‘natural law’ the pre-existing hatreds and biases of the ruling elite, biases that can in turn be traced to Falcrest’s backlash against historical meddling by the Oriati.

It is so important to me to establish that these structures of oppression are not inevitable, universal human conditions, but contingent on a particular historical path.

They are also arguably maladaptive to the Empire’s success — a crack in the armored logic of Masquerade expansion.

*Having worked in evolution and psychology, I have a particular hatred for these arguments. They aren’t very rigorous.

“There’s a treatment. Conducted with the hands.”

Based on late 19th century treatments for hysteria. Wherever possible I tried to pull from scientific and pseudoscientific techniques, rather than religious sources for prejudice. More thought went into this but I don’t want to dwell on it as it makes me hateful and sick.

“Even you, though you’re their favorite.”

Baru doesn’t reply, in word or internal dialog, to this remark. But the fact that it’s marked as something Lao said gives it importance. Baru is aware, on some level, of her status.

“I can survive this. You have so much to lose.”

Lao really loves her second cousin. She is implicitly afraid that Baru will be targeted next.

Scene Three

Cairdine Farrier was no help at all…

This passage lays out Falcrest’s prejudices about gender. They are very much like our modern prejudices, although Falcrest arrived at them by a different route. It was a tricky balancing act to pull this off. I don’t know if I succeeded!

Later we will also see some differences from our world. The bundles of traits associated with men and women are different than what we’re used to on Earth.

The line about being a strong young woman reads a bit like a jab at the Strong Female Character, that phantom of empowerment who should be the protagonist but for some reason isn’t, who kicks ass at the beginning of the movie but ends up a hostage by the end, who is inexplicably sidelined by an inept avatar of men’s insecurity and id. It reads that way because it is.

“Quiet!” Cairdine Farrier hissed. “Diline reports on social hygiene to the headmaster, and those reports go into your permanent files! Do you understand what it means for your future if you make an enemy of him?”

Shock upon shocks for poor Baru. Farrier is not all-powerful within the local apparatus (of course, as far as Baru knows, he’s a charitable wool merchant).

From the near distance came the sound of a dish shattering in the kitchen and a man shouting angrily in Aphalone.

I occasionally try to evoke the fact that there are more stories happening around our story, more going on in the world, so as to tear down the walls around the narrative and let the reader feel the wind.

“Child, believe me: the alternatives will bring her much more pain.”

Falcrest’s clinical, surgical atrocities may evoke the horrors of the early 20th century, but in a broader sense I wanted them to feel disconnected from our world. They are Falcrest‘s atrocities, not a symbolic avatar of Earth’s — thus the effort to divorce them by applying psychological conditioning and symbolic violence. And Farrier here recognizes that they are painful and unjust, betraying doubt. The man has been out in the world, advancing the Imperial cause, for long enough to grow weary. He wants to go home, where he won’t have to confront the consequences of his own work.

It’s not worth losing his patronage over this.

Baru believes she can do more good in the long run with Farrier’s patronage than in the short term by going to bat for Lao. Important. Obviously central to her character.

Scene Four

Very brief. Nothing to say I haven’t said already. I like that we get to see Baru doing something domestic, being an ordinary student.

Scene Five

“Hey,” Baru said, as throatily as she could manage.

Baru’s been experiencing Crush Lightning every time she sees Aminata, so of course she’s nervous, as her gestures betray.

She had very brown eyes and very dark skin and an intelligent brow and her arm worked with muscle.

About as physical as Baru’s overtly admitted markers of attraction generally get, although of course she’s too disciplined to say anything very crude. Still, I wanted to mark her noticing women early, without falling into male gaze.

Baru’s relationship with Aminata settles into more of a close friendship, but the element of attraction remains.

A navy that must, in the course of packing crews of mostly men onto tiny ships for months at a time, have confronted problems of this order.

Falcrest’s Navy was once a man’s domain, but as Incrastic science let women step forward as natural navigators and mathematicians, they started to filter into the officer corps. Through realpolitik, canny alliances, and excellent performance they made the Navy officer corps a woman’s field, although Falcrest leaves an uncomfortable glass ceiling on advancement somewhere around the Empire Admiralty.

Anyway, the women had to face the usual patriarchal bullshit, and they solved the problem with endurance, brutality, and competence in the face of absurd double standards. There’s now a women officer mafia within the Navy that quietly handles dude problems. This has made the Navy a rising source of concern for more conservative elements within Falcrest’s only-nominally-gender-egalitarian power structure.

“I’m from Oriati Mbo. My family used to trade on Taranoke, and if you tell anyone I spoke to you I’ll gut you, you understand?”

Aminata is from Segu, one of the four great mbo federations. She ended up in Masquerade service through a complex process which we might learn more about when we see some of her perspective. She sees a kindred spirit in Baru and wants to help out of goodness and empathy. Resistance against oppressive bullshit is not the exemption but the norm.

fresh salt air and disobedience…the rumble of thunder on the horizon…the conspiratorial wariness of the older girl’s glances

Nothing sexual here: Baru is excited to be outside and acting on her own volition, claiming spatial territory with intrigue.

It had died in pus and desperation while she took lessons behind white walls.

Oof. A running negative-space theme in this book is that Baru is actually quite insulated from some of the injustice she claims to be fighting. She doesn’t have to pay all the everyday costs that, say, Cousin Lao might.

a pair of Masquerade warships roosted with their sails furled.

Associating warships with birds, and birds are of course tied to Baru…

“No false claims. You can’t be doing this because you fucked and now he’s bragging. Men like to think that false claims are a woman’s weapon, you know. Men close ranks about these things. Even good men.”

Aminata may be helping Baru, but she also buys into Falcresti ideology herself, so she has a pragmatic and slightly troubling view of what’s important to talk about first. While a women officer mafia is a great resource to have, they are an organization of human beings concerned with holding power, so they develop defensive bullshit of their own. One form of this bullshit is a pre-emptive inoculation against male hysteria about ‘false rape claims’.

“And Falcrest rules say the man gets to brag and the woman’s got to be silent.”

Rooted in pseudoscientific ideas that men are inherently promiscuous and women inherently modest, which is, of course, rationalization for past prejudice. Aminata doesn’t buy it.

I love Aminata’s delight at the thought of beating someone with soap. She’s a soldier. I also love Baru’s disappointment that the technique for resistance isn’t some n-dimensional chess gambit.

Troops drilled in the muddy streets of the village.

Poor Iriad. I wish I’d spent a little time there, an image or two to make it more beloved.

“Could be risky, setting the Navy against the Charitable service…”

A glimpse at the hell of Masquerade internal politics. ‘We should backstab each other’ is their core operating principle, the truss that holds them up.

Wishing sullenly for her mother’s boar-killing spear…

Baru implicitly feels like she’s wrong: maybe physical resistance WAS better than being digested by the beast. Ah, and then she thinks it explicitly!

There was a huge problem with this scene for a while, in that I forgot to have Baru ever actually name Diline as the problem. Diline. Diline Diline Diline. Sounds like an asshole name to me.

Scene Six

A captain of the Masquerade Marines stopped by personally to congratulate him.

No trouble figuring out what happened here: the Navy put pressure on the school to fire Diline for exploiting his position to harass students. Good on you, Navy.

When she came to Baru she was no gentler, but she smiled.

How to be friends with Baru: treat her like she’s ready for the challenge, and tell her that’s what you like. They get to be friends for a while here. Again, something I would’ve liked to spend a scene on, but pacing is a harsh master.

He looked at her with guarded eyes, and she thought that he knew what had been done to save Lao. But she could not decide if he was pleased, or angry,or waiting to see what she would do next.

Farrier is a very good operator. He’s one of the few characters in this novel who only shows Baru what he wants to show, and whom she has difficulty reading.

Scene Seven

All these fallen empires…they were yesteryear’s methods, the losers of history. Falcrest had surpassed them.

I like Baru’s rationale for disinterest in history: these guys all died, what do I have to learn from them! Come on, Baru, you’ve got to understand what toppled them.

And she excelled in swordsmanship, surpassing even most of the boys, who by seventeen were now, on the mean, bigger and stronger than the girls.

Establishing that being good with a sword doesn’t mean shit against a whole empire. Also nodding to the disadvantages Baru would face in fighting a bigger, taller person. I trained in krav maga under a very cool woman, and she was extremely pragmatic about the disadvantages you’d face as a woman in hand to hand combat. Pure mass and reach count for a lot. I love action scenes and action movies that acknowledge this — it’s not like we have to dance around it, since everyone, men included, is a physical underdog compared to someone out there, so we should know how to block fight scenes against a superior antagonist. Gina Carano in Haywire was great because the movie had the respect to let her get sucker-punched occasionally; she doesn’t dance around playing agile wire-fu, she soaks up punishment and keeps moving,

…the Metademe where they made special people of clarified purpose…

You see what I did there, oh reader mine?

I will go to Falcrest and learn to rule, as we have been ruled. I will make it so no Taranoki daughter will lose a father again.

Baru’s mission to end the tragic story. Note her core logic. If the Falcresti made it this far, and conquered us, there must be some kind of truth to their beliefs, right? They must be right about something. This equivalence between power and rectitude is profoundly morally dangerous and it is perhaps the greatest threat Baru faces.

In the short term, of course, Baru’s about to get hit with another shitty Masquerade trick, targeting her closest female friendship. It’s implicitly an exercise in control and intimidation…

Baru lifted her blade and set herself at the wide mensur, two footsteps away, sword at the day guard.

Naval System swordplay is based on the short, violent clashes of German longsword styles.

“They’ll take a knife to your cunt,” she said, and struck Baru’s hands so hard she dropped her blade.

Be wary, reader, be wary and vigilant for the subtle ways of Masquerade conditioning. Who arranged this scene? What are they telling Baru? We can make anyone betray you? We detect all defiance? We will infiltrate and subvert all your means of resistance? Is this subtext and foreshadowing, o reader mine?

I feel bad for Aminata here. She’s been raised a little homophobic, although her homeland isn’t, and she is terrified for her career and standing. If she’s accused of tribadism that would intersect with racial prejudice and become a really toxic cocktail. She’s angry and afraid. Later she will regret this deeply. Baru’s her best friend.

I have complex, lengthy, unsettled, hurt thoughts about the use of physical mutilation as a jeopardy hanging over Baru’s head. They deserve attention at another time.

They stood locked together, panting, Aminata’s proud high-browed face close and ferociously angry.

The marker on Aminata is her brow, her intellect, not her eyes. Baru is in touch with what she thinks, not the barricade of her face. I like this blocking a lot.

“It’s a crime against law and nature,” Aminata hissed. “And you should’ve told me.”

One of these things bothers Aminata far more than the other.

“You’ll go to Aurdwynn, to prove yourself as Imperial Accountant in those troubled lands. And perhaps later to Falcrest.”

The stage is set! I wonder how much of a shock this is to those reading for the first time. Aurdwynn is a harsher environment than Falcrest in some respects: Incrastic law is enforced with brutal punishments, surveillance, and complicity, whereas in Falcrest people are largely left to police themselves, since the chains of Imperial control have been assimilated and rendered soft, invisible, perpetuated mostly by the market and social forces rather than top-down control.

Anyway: Baru reads this as a rebuke, and a failure. But Cairdine Farrier is spinning his webs. He has unfinished business in Aurdwynn, as does the whole Masquerade. And it would mean a great deal to his agenda if Baru Cormorant, his prize find, were the one to resolve it…particularly if, in the process, she displayed her compliance with Masquerade narratives.

8 thoughts on “The Traitor Baru Cormorant read-along: Chapter 2!

  1. Paul

    Anyway: Baru reads this as a rebuke, and a failure

    And so did I. Going into reading this, I thought she was going to be working in Falcrest. This was a “Wait, what?” moment.

    Reply
    1. TigerTeeth

      I was spoiled on it, un(?)fortunately. Sorry, Seth.

      Though I’m not sure I would have pegged this as a rebuke in any case. Amanita’s betrayal, that I pegged as the rebuke, and I figured Fisher was too smart to let a mind like Baru’s go to waste.

      As it happens, I never forgave her for that. Amanita, I mean. From this point on the very fact of her presence on page was enough to send me into spasms of paranoia, trying to guess where the catastrophe was coming from.

      Reply
  2. Sami Privitor

    So the Mask’s choice to vanish Salm rather than show him dead causes a rift between Baru and her mother, and gives the Masks a sense of control over Baru. What if he is in fact still alive, and they targeted him not just because he’s queer but because of his specific relationship with Baru? Farrier was already interested in her at the time and could have arranged it. If he is still alive, they could hold him over her head at some point (which sucks due to future events).

    Baru has entered a stage in adolescence where she finally witnesses her mother’s weaker side, her humanity, rather than being the sort of godlike figure she once viewed her, the “thunderbolt”. But she obviously still respects her because she longs for her presence and strength during her first conversation with Aminata, and she sneaks out to visit with her from time to time.

    Cardine Farrier seems to have become a sort of parent figure to her, given how she looks for her 3 parents’ qualities in him. She enjoys his company because he helps her to take action rather than be passive and helpless.

    I think it’s interesting that her mother and the Taronoke citizens are organizing a resistance, similar to the Aurdwynn resistances. It begs to question whether they can prove that outside force can, in fact, unseat the Masks. I think both the inside and the outside will end up working together to settle it.

    “You don’t wear a mask.” Farrier puts on a front to charm people into his plans.

    “Close shaved scalp.” : When she was 9, Baru had asked why Farrier’s guards were bald, which seems to indicate this isn’t the norm in her culture, so I’m left to assume Baru and the other students were shaved upon entering in accordance with some sanitation requirements. Another removal of agency.

    “When the joining is done, there will be a sea for you to swim in.” : Foreshadowing? The final scene in the book seems to give credence to this thought, given the turbulent sea waters. A nice metaphor.

    There are interesting stereotypes for both sexes, and it’s intriguing how patriarchy arises from different roots here than in reality.

    Even early on, Baru considers sacrificing a human being for the sake of all.

    “False claims are a woman’s weapon.” : highlights existence of rape culture.

    Baru feels ashamed for having no power and is humiliated at having to rely on others to make a difference. Even so, Farrier seems to think she shows promise BECAUSE of that underhanded rebellion, that manipulation of people more powerful than her. The drug before the exam also seemed to be a test. I wouldn’t have trusted it either!

    Hm, it seems Purity’s future entrance into the plot was foreshadowed early! I didn’t put much thought into it before.

    “Stakhieczi masons now dwindled away into the north, maybe someday to return.” : after the end, they have a good reason to try! They’re so elusive that I have to wonder if they have a surprisingly strong hand to play. What are they up to up there?

    Reply
  3. Joanna

    So I’m not sure what the central error of Incrasticsm is, but they appear to be Lamarckian. That is, they believe that inheritance can be much more significantly effected by behavior than it actually is (epigenetics!).

    Reply
    1. Seth Post author

      Yes, they are. It’s an error compounded by their failure to (yet) rigorously separate social and environmental influence from biologically determined traits.

      Reply

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