I don’t really know what happened between me and Seth Dickinson’s The Masquerade. I thoroughly enjoyed The Traitor Baru Cormorant. It had a solid concept, with a great subversion of expectations, and an original theme. I should have put the series down, brushed off my hands, and walked away. But I decided to read the next two books, and they really weren’t for me. The Monster Baru Cormorant felt like Dickinson was going to end the series after book one, but couldn’t turn down the money for a sequel. It involves a major jumpstart to the conflict, an entirely new antagonist and plot to follow, and a mostly fresh cast. Monster isn’t bad, but it lacks the elegance and eloquence of Traitor and feels like a much weaker book.
Tyrant, on the other hand, was too much effort for me to even finish.
The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, or at least the half of it I read before I threw in the towel, seems to be a book about nothing that relies on your appreciation for the previous novels to get away with not saying anything. So much time in this book is spent building to things, and it exhausts me. It took something like 20% of the book for Baru to walk across a ship and have a conversation, and this is not a short book. Nothing happens; the characters just talk about how exciting the finale is going to be when it eventually happens. It is infuriating.
Previously, when I read and enjoyed TheTraitor Baru Cormorant, I (and many readers) enjoyed Dickinson’s poetic, dramatic, and eloquent prose and how he wove it into his story to create a sense of drama and gravitas. TheTyrant Baru Cormorant reads like a soap opera had a child with a thesaurus. The verbosity is off the charts, and it makes processing even the simplest conversations a huge effort. It also helps hide the fact that, as I mentioned before, nothing happens.
There is also a lot of time skipping between the past and present, which adds additional confusion and difficulty in processing what was going on. All of this combines into a book that is a lot of work to read, isn’t fun, and doesn’t feel like it has a lot to say. I found it mostly tiresome, which is a shame because I really like Traitor and recommend you go read it. Just don’t pick up the sequels if you do.
The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is disappointing, to say the least. It reads like a modern-day case study about the hubris of trying to squeeze out every last dollar of something that performed well in the marketplace. The book uses an aggressive number of words to say very little, and there are better uses of your time than to struggle through its convoluted and overly stylized pages. If you like the book, I am genuinely happy for you – please come explain its redeeming features to me. I wanted to like it very badly, and I found that I could not even finish it. Do not recommend.
The Monster Baru Cormorant, which I will call Monster for short henceforth, is the kind of book that damages friendships. The reason I say it will damage friendships is Monster is a book that some people will love and others will despise. It is a book that one friend will read, think it’s the greatest thing that has ever happened, and recommend to a second, who will think it’s highly overrated. This is not to say I have mixed feelings about the novel – I feel the book is most definitely excellent. As the second book in The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, the book is one of the most anticipated books of the year and a whirlwind of fun from start to finish. However, I can just look at this book, look at the taste of some of my friends, and know that they will not enjoy it.
This review would be easier if I had reviewed the first book (which I didn’t like an idiot). The plot of these books have had so many twists and turns that it is impossible to talk about what happens in book two without ruining it – so let’s talk about the plot of book one, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Our story follows the prodigy Baru Cormorant, hence the mouthful of a title. She is a young girl from the island nation of Taranoke, and the plot follows the slow fall and incorporation of the Taranoke into The Empire of Masks – a huge empire that is slowly absorbing all the smaller countries around it through cultural warfare. This is particularly distasteful as Taranoke is a society that openly embraces homosexuality (Baru has gay fathers, and is herself a lesbian) and The Empire of Masks sees homosexuality as a deviance that must be rooted out. Thus, Baru is pulled away from her home and taken to a re-education school, where she is taught both how to be a model citizen and to control her “flaws”. This leads to her rising up the ranks of the empire as an imperial accountant – until she eventually begins a rebellion against them.
This is the general structure of the plot, but the focus is on Baru’s journey through a political minefield and the effectiveness of cultural warfare. There is a boatload of political intrigue, scheming, economic manipulations, conflict of ideas, and spycraft in these two books that are a blast to follow. Baru keeps you on the edge of your seat, giving you enough insight into her mind to grow attached to her, but not so much that you can predict her next move. They are chaoticly fun, messy, books that move at a whirlwind pace. In addition, the prose is also fantastic, with Dickinson being excellent at both lavish descriptions and powerful analogies. I found myself laughing out loud fairly regularly at some of the analogies in Monster. The characters are also phenomenal, even though they can be a bit confusing. All the cast feel like deep three dimensional characters you can sink your teeth into, but they can be a bit confusing due to their sheer number and the lack of textual reminders to their identities.
On top of all of this, the world that Dickinson has developed is one of the best in recent years. In order to sell the idea of cultural warfare, he had to do a great job developing the cultural identity of the players in the book – and at this, he succeeded in spades. Each of the various nations have clear identities that feel unique and original and you will find yourself burning to unlock the secrets of each location. The agents of the various countries do their best to ruin each others economy, annex colonies, introduce problematic ideas or fads, start civil wars, and create a slew of other fun disasters for each other that are just fantastic to watch. The conflicts, especially in Monster, make the series stand out in the fantasy landscape as a breath of fresh air.
So why did I say some people will hate it at the start. Well, for better or worse the book is pretty self-involved. In order to sell you on the various cultures, Dickinson goes full ham on his prose and descriptions. Everything is overly dramatic, poetic, and ostentatious. It creates a really nice aesthetic feel to the book if the reader is into it, but there is also a chance a different reader might reject it as being up its own ass. Someone out there is going to read this book, think it is the pinnacle of original excellent fantasy, and hand it to a friend who thinks it is pretentious garbage.
So where do I stand? Definitely more with the former reader. Seth Dickinson started something brilliant with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, that he only improved and expanded on with The Monster Baru Cormorant. The level of attention to detail, execution of original ideas, and emotional arcs of the characters make Monster one of the better books I read this year – and one I would recommend to anyone. Although there is a small chance you may hate it, there is a much, much larger chance that it is one of the best books you have read in recent years.
Rating: The Monster Baru Cormorant – 8.5/10
The time has come for ‘Best of 2015’ threads and to reflect on all the wonderful books I enjoyed over the year. This piece will address my top 10 reads published in 2015, but is missing some of the amazing older books I read throughout the year. I read roughly 80 books this year, about half of which (40) were published in 2015, and the following books are my top picks. I found the new releases this year surprisingly less powerful than many sequels. Last year I gave over half the top 10 spots to new releases, whereas this year only three made the cut. It has been a year of very powerful sequels, in particular second installments of series. With that said, let’s talk about some of 2015’s gems and please note that some of the blurbs link to my full reviews of the books.
10) Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien De Castell – one of my top five books from 2014 was Traitor’s Blade, the first of the Greatcoat series, for its incredible humor, emotional impact, and great cast. The follow-up, Knight’s Shadow, was a great addition that explored some large growth in the trinity of main characters, while still keeping the same powerful voice and tone from book one. The plot evolved nicely and the general quality of the book stayed consistent with Traitor’s Blade, but there was slightly less emotional impact in the second novel. With two demonstrations of consistent talent I am eagerly awaiting De Castell’s third entry, Saint’s Blood, in 2016.
9) The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – The first of the three entries on the list to not be sequels. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a story of cultural warfare and a young girl whose home is eaten by an oppressive republic in her youth. To fight back, she becomes a cog in the great machine that is the republic and tries to bring it down from the inside. While suffering from some pacing issues, The Traitor Baru Cormorant brought a ton of new ideas to fantasy warfare and is a very different journey than your typical fare. The book has a fast pace start and end, but suffers a little in the middle. Regardless I am looking forward to more from Seth Dickinson.
8) Twelve Kings in Sharakhaiby Bradley P. Beaulieu – The first of a new epic fantasy based in an Arabian setting. The story follows a girl named Cena, a gladiator in Sharakhai, as she tries to survive in an incredible city ruled by twelve kings in the center of a desert. The book had a very slow start but picked up pace rapidly after the first 20%, continuing all the way to the last page. With Bradley having found his groove I cannot wait to pick up the sequel to see where the story will go.
7) The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis – I read a lot of good historical fiction this year, with The Mechanical taking the win by a small margin. With its original setting, steampunk science, and character growth it was a refreshing read that distinguishes it from its competition. The story of The Netherlands and France has had me looking for historical fiction of a wider subject than WWII or England. The sequel, The Rising, releases next week and I will be picking it up immediately.
6) The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan – The only finale to make the list, The Autumn Republic finished off a series I don’t feel close to done with yet. McClellan’s world is gigantic, and with the close of this series I feel like we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Despite the ending feeling a little too quick, McClellan has finished a series to be proud of that maintains a high quality and exciting ride the entire way through.
5) Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey – The Expanse novels are rapidly becoming my favorite purchase every summer (as they are released consistently every year in June). This series has now released five out of its nine novels and I have been blown away every single time. Every novel follows new perspectives, new challenges, and pushes the conflicts to new heights. I do not know how Ty Franik and Daniel Abraham are going to top the levels of panic and excitement Nemesis Games gave me, but I have said that about every single release. The books continue to both be a continuation of the greater series, and almost completely self contained at the same time. If you haven’t picked up any of The Expanse series yet, or have been waiting to read more, I highly encourage you to do so.
4) Firefight by Brandon Sanderson – Published early in the year, lots of people have overlooked this sleeper. Steelheart, a novel about powerless humans hunting super heroes, was a surprise hit with me. I decided to read it on a whim, despite not loving the premise, and was blown away by the result. That being said, the first novel was very self contained and reached a pretty definite conclusion at the end, giving me a lot of concern where Sanderson was going to take the series or if it could remain good. The fact that Firefight is so much better than Steelheart was very hard to process at first. Sanderson takes his winning formula from book one, and makes it deeper, more intense, and simply a lot cooler. Sanderson’s talent for weird magic is on point with his collection of interesting super powers and the plot has a lot more emotional weight than it did in book one. The finale, Calamity, comes out next February and is one of my most anticipated books for 2016.
3) The Price of Valour by Django Wexler – The Shadow Campaigns keeps creeping up my lists the more and more I think about it. The third installment of five, The Price of Valour is proof that Wexler can learn from his mistakes and has no shortage of imagination. The Thousand Names, Wexler’s debut, was an incredible flintlock fantasy about a remote military campaign that was fast, exciting, and surprising complex. Its sequel, The Shadow Throne, was an attempt to expand the world from the first book and double the cast. While The Shadow Throne had a metric ton of new things I liked, it also felt like it lacked the exciting pace and style of Wexler’s Debut;however, The Price of Valour has it all. With the pacing and intensity of book one, and the amazing cast from book two, the third Shadow Campaign novel is the strongest so far and continues to unravel the gigantic web of mystery that covers the series.
2) Half the World by Joe Abercrombie – Half the World is the strangest book on this list to me. The second novel of The Shattered Seas trilogy, it stands miles above its prequel and sequel. Half a King (book one) and Half a War (book three) were both good Abercrombie novels (for those of you who know what that means) but neither is close to the level of Half the World. The second novel follows two perspectives, Brand and Thorn, that play off of one another in a truly magical way. It is the story of two people finding their place in the world, realizing who they are, and going on a journey. I have never seen better use of multiple perspective and the book led me on a emotional roller coaster from start to finish. This book is definitely one of Abercrombie’s finest pieces of writing.
1) Golden Son by Pierce Brown – Red Rising is a really enjoyable book. It simultaneously steals all the things that are good from series like The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, and Ender’s Game while also creating both an imaginative and original setting and an exciting plot. It could simultaneously be described as a guilty pleasure, and an imaginative look as space colonization and class segregation. Red Rising had a pretty damn good thing going for it at the end of book one, and sets itself up to just reuse the incredibly powerful formula again in the sequel Golden Son… and then Pierce Brown decided to throw all of that momentum out the window and go in a completely different direction. The result is a book that felt like a massively different experience from Red Rising with the connecting theme being that both books are incredibly good. I was so confused as to why Pierce Brown would ditch his Red Rising gold mine until I was 10% in and read the entire book in one sitting. This book made me feel like a child again, discovering the wonder of reading for a first time and blowing my mind at every twist and turn. The finale, Morning Star, comes out in February and I highly recommend you check the series out.
New York Comicon has come and gone this past weekend, and what an experience it was. If you ever get a chance to go to a Comicon I highly recommend it. This was my first, and I only went because I live in NYC and a few authors I wanted to meet were supposedly going. What I did not know is that the publishers of the fantasy and science fiction world turn out in force, with an army of famous writers under their wings. Authors are my heroes. The books I read when I was younger were a large force in shaping who I am today, and I have undying respect for their creators. As such it was a little daunting to realize I was going to meet so many of them at once. However, my fears were baseless and it was a tremendously fun experience. I met more than 20 famous authors; sometimes just having casual conversation, sometimes getting books signed, and sometimes squealing with glee. However, for me New York Comicon was also a deeply thoughtful time, where I realized with renewed fervor why I love authors and reading. Authors are celebrities, heroes, and great people. Every single interaction with every author I met was positive, but I want to highlight two to give you an idea of what I am talking about.
First let me tell you about Seth Dickinson, author of the brand new The Traitor Baru Cormorant. If you somehow have not heard about this book yet, know that it is being widely regarded as a masterpiece and that Seth is one of the newest great talents in fantasy. While I have not had a spare moment to buy and read the book myself yet, I was frothing at the mouth with excitement at a chance to meet him and talk. Unfortunately for me Seth was at NYCC on a day I wasn’t, so my chances seemed very low. That was until I ended up next to him in a line at the Tor booth waiting to
get a signed copy of Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. As I mentally rallied myself to talk to him, Sam Sykes (author of City Stained Red and other great books) walked up to us and began one of the most endearing conversations I have ever witnessed in my entire life. It went something like this:
Sam: … Seth, what are you doing?
Seth: What, I am waiting in line to get Catherynne’s autograph! Why is that weird?
Sam: Seth, you are a Tor author, she is literally your coworker. You don’t need to wait in this line, go to the front.
Seth: No man, everyone here is a fan of Catherynne and just as important as me. Everyone waited for my signing yesterday, and I want to do the same.
Sam: No, you are going to the front of the line.
It was at this point that Sam dragged Seth out of the line towards the front as the rest of the line cheered encouragement and laughed. This was just one example I saw of the many authors who are massive fantasy fans themselves, and do not place themselves higher than other readers.
The second really fantastic example I have of this is the lovely Myke Cole, author of Control Point, Gemini Cell, and other books. When I first got into NYCC I was overwhelmed by the number of things to do. However, I noticed Myke was doing a book signing right at the start of the day, and decided to run over and get in line to meet him while I figured out what else I wanted to do. While I was in line to meet Myke I noticed that an actor I like was also doing an autograph session… for $80 a signing. I love the actor’s work, but this seemed really steep to me for what was likely going to be a few seconds with the star. As I was pondering this, I reached the front of the line and got to meet Myke Cole. Myke asked me how I was doing, what my plans for Comicon were, where I got my jacket because he liked it, where I was from, and a bunch of other earnest questions while he signed my book. He also answered all of my questions about him, and by the time he finished signing he had me feeling like we were friends. For someone who is a fan it was a heartwarming experience, especially in light of how much other celebrities were charging to just get their signature. But this wasn’t even the end of my Comicon experience with Myke.
I ended up running into him again at an author/fan meet and greet at the end of the weekend. It was a small gathering with a slew of authors such as Terry Brooks, Naomi Novik, Alan Smale, and Michael Sullivan. This gathering was one of the most inception-y things I have ever experienced. While I freaked out as I got to talk to Myke again, I saw him freak out as he got to meet Alan Smale, who I saw freak out as he got to meet Terry Brooks, who I saw freak out because he got to meet Naomi Novik, etc etc. It was just a room full of people gushing happiness as they got to meet their idols. As I continued to talk with Myke he said something that really stuck with me: “At the end of the day, everyone is just a fan. No matter how famous someone get they will always be a lover of the genre, it is why we start writing in the first place.”
The love of reading science fiction and fantasy permeated every single person I talked to this weekend, and it was a uniting force across the entire event. Whether it was the Del Ray editor talking about how how lucky he is to be paid to draw maps, or authors asking me if it is ok to pause a conversation because they see another author autograph whose autograph they want, or getting over 30 free books because people just wanted their work to be read, Comicon helped me find new levels of love for the authors who are my heroes and I cannot wait to go back every year.