The Conquered’s Choice: Empire and The Traitor Baru Cormorant

I finished reading Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

My head is spinning, a bit.

I finished it three days ago.

***

In those geek-circle inevitable conversations, a perennial one is What AD&D Alignment Are You? Like What Hogwarts’ House Are You or Which Pokemon Are You, this is the sort of conversation that can lead to dangerous ground, if you start telling your friends and family what alignment you think they are and they disagree and then you EXPLAIN your thinking and they go “is that how you really think of me, really?”

Dangerous ground.

But I grew up with alignments, and they are a part of how I consider the world. When I was younger I called myself chaotic good. For a while I said I was neutral good, with occasional forays into chaotic neutral. (Hello, college!) These days … these days I think of myself as more or less lawful good.

I really, really, really like order.

I get upset when I see people on the road fail to use a turn signal — not because it’s actually affecting me at the moment, but because the law is there for good reasons, and because we are most often the sum of our habits, and because good habits make for good people. I read the signs in elevators about occupancy not because I think overloading the elevator one time will break it, but because if everyone overloaded the elevator it WOULD break, and we have to think of everyone else’s needs. I clean up the commons. “Sure, you could do it, but the rule is there for everyone not just for you,” is a thing I say to my children all the time.

I am viscerally troubled by non-orderly queues.

I think order has value. I think order and rules make society and people better.

***

I know a lot about history. I love history. One of the things I love is that people are basically just regular people, no matter where or when. We have pretty much been motivated by the same things, the same desires and fears. Past humans are pretty much comprehensible to present humans. We are always us.

Empires, it happens, have pretty much always been empires.

The economics of empire are brutal. People need a certain amount of Stuff to live. If they make more Stuff than they need to live, that surplus can be saved. If the surplus is saved, it can be given to another person who can then do something else with their time.

This, this is how civilization proceeds. Right there. That’s it. Without that, we have nothing. What is done with that extra time, who does it, and where the products of that time goes — this is what makes an empire.

In an empire the surplus is taken away and used to make some other community of people extraordinarily wealthy. In return the people who made the surplus get … something.

Ah.

They get something.

This, this is the thing that many discussions of empire fail to notice.

***

It is true that the “civilizing” laws, products, and governance that the British Empire extended towards, say, India, was brutal, repressive, extortionate, and demeaning. It is also true that uncounted numbers of people saw what the British had and wanted it. My goodness, did they want it. After all, the British were … they were winning. They had won. Many people see power and glory and very reasonably want to be a part of it.

It is true that the Roman Empire was spread at swordpoint. That the Romans stripped surpluses from client states and used that to foster the power of Roman citizens. It is also true that Rome spread methods of agriculture, of architecture, they spread science and math and reading, they made the world better for more people. Uncounted numbers of people yearned for their children to become Roman citizens. To reap the bounty that was taken from their homelands and ancestors.

Every empire I know of — Aztec, Inca, Qin, Mali, Korea, Carthage, Mongol, ANY of them — has taken surpluses from people. All of the empires I know of have given or forced something in return. And in every empire — every single one — some people from the conquered client lands have risen to great, glorious power in the conqueror’s government.

Are they traitors?

***

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the first book I can recall reading that lovingly, cruelly, ruthlessly portrays the Conquered’s Choice.

***

The empire in The Traitor, The Masquerade, is lawful evil. It is clearly, manifestly, lawful evil. This is made absolutely unequivocal. But it is lawful. And evil does not mean stupid.

The conquered peoples in this novel — they get stuff. They get dentistry. Literacy. Economic systems that provide cushions in times of famine or drought. They get advanced medical care. More women survive childbirth. More workers survive injury and accident.

If the things the Masquerade takes in return — language, marriage, autonomy, control of family, religion, history — are not all that important to you, personally, why on earth would you not desire to see your children survive to adulthood? If the trade is your husband’s life after surgery for an infected tooth in exchange for a religion that was only moderately important to you, why would you not take it?

If the trade is your life and history and language in exchange for your child going on to become a full citizen of the empire … well, I don’t know about you. I expect I might trade my children away to the new, imperial educational system. I would want them to live, to survive, to benefit, to thrive. If it meant that they never came home, that they didn’t remember me …

I don’t know. I might still make that trade.

If resistance means I lose everything, and compliance means I lose some things

Is compliance treachery? Is collaboration betrayal? Who is betrayed if one decides to live?

***

The thing about Seth Dickinson’s novel is that every one of these characters has their own individual response to the Conquered’s Choice. These replies are human and varied and deeply personal. This makes every. Single. Character. in this novel richly nuanced.

Do you know how RARE that is? My goodness.

All of these people, these sets of living, breathing motivations and goals, they all dance with each other in a plot that is entirely derived from human beings being human. This is an accomplishment so complicated that I fist-punched the air (actually, literally, on my living room couch) when I reached the end of the book.

Dickinson pulls it off. He makes it all work.

This book is amazing. It’s … it’s stunningly good. I was stunned. It’s now three days later, and I am still stunned. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is not only technically executed with incredible skill, it not only has detailed worldbuilding of depth and complexity, it not only has a host of intriguing and well-developed characters —

— it also explains, clearly and it raw, painful detail, why good people join evil empires.

The Conquered’s Choice.

Mr. Dickinson, I can honestly say that I look forward to everything you will write in the future. Thank you for this book. It’s amazing.

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One Response

  1. Wow. With a review like that I just HAVE to read this now. I’m a stickler for good characterization and believable motivation in my reading so this sounds like it’s just right for me.

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