Locus: Five years ago, I was privileged to review, in the online wing of this fine publication, Seth Dickinson’s debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. I praised his prose as “deft and forceful,” while deeming his characters “all built to clever and deep dimensions, with fully human qualities and motives.” Finding his novel to be a tasty blend of C.J. Cherryh’s early planetary romances and Samuel Delany’s revisionist Nevèrÿon fantasies, I concluded by saying that Dickinson had succeeded “in building and exploring a morally treacherous world populated with exotic characters whose hearts nonetheless align with ours.”
Of course, I had no way at the time of foreseeing what refinements or surprises or critical illuminations subsequent volumes would bring. But now that I’ve caught up with book two, The Monster Baru Cormorant, and now that book three has arrived, I discover that while I stand by all my earlier assessments, I have to add a few fresh notes, and, of course, evaluate the newest entry and the series as a whole.
First, I want to observe that while Traitor struck me as somewhat mannerpunk in its elaboration of ceremonies and politesse, the series has definitely gone grimdark.
Also, I did not give enough weight to Dickinson’s rich and exotic worldbuilding and culture-minting. This universe hangs together organically, and the distinct societies are multiplex and deep.
Thirdly, we could entertain some useful comparisons with elements of Robert E. Howard’s landscapes and figures, or those of Fritz Leiber’s more sophisticated sword and sorcery tales. Although utterly postmodern, this series revels in pulp tropes and vigor.
And finally, with the huge scope of the tale now revealed, we can evaluate Dickinson’s skills at plotting and managing a huge narrative arc.
Dickinson can construct a five-page fight scene that never falters, and then turn around and describe that emotionally charged parental reunion with some tenderness. He tops himself with a vision that Baru has towards the end of the book, after all the dust has settled and she’s achieved a mixed victory: she sees the future she’s ensured as a kind of glittering utopian reward for all the suffering people of the Empire. But will it come to pass, given the mystery embedded in a small coda that posits more challenges just ahead?