It is a truth universally accepted that the majority of people reading fantastic literature lead stubbornly banal lives. It’s probably pushing the boat out a bit too far to suggest that they’re all accountants, but if all fantasy books spontaneously exploded suddenly in the hands of their readers, it’s safe to predict that there’d be a lot of empty desks the next morning in a lot of boring offices.
So it’s nice of Seth Dickinson to give us all a fantasy novel in which the protagonist is an actual accountant, waging her war against the evil empire with the opaque miracle of double entry book-keeping. True, Baru Cormorant is no ordinary accountant, what with her prodigious intellect and winning ways, but she’s gratifyingly focused on the question which we all have to ask midway through most real-life adventures “And who’s going to pay for all this, then?”
On its own, that would just be a gimmick, but Dickinson isn’t just running with his choice of character; he’s using the character’s viewpoint to give us a view into a unique fantasy world which can probably only be seen properly through that viewpoint.
Which is one of the two things which makes this a superior book. The other is that it’s well written, with fleshed out characters who make sense and are all clearly the heroes of their own stories, just as we all are in our own lives. The Traitor might be the best fantasy book I’ve read this year, and it’s certainly the best thing I’ve read by a writer I’d never heard of. Good writing, and a genuinely novel world; you’re doing well to get either, let alone both.
Fantasy’s having a resurgence these days, and the writers have tried to get away from the simple Tolkien-inspired worlds, of medieval European feudalism punctuated by magic, into fantasy realms which at least reflect a wider range of human societies and possibilities. Still, there’s a sameness even to the new wave, which relies perhaps a little too much on the Byzantine Empire and the hovering threat of steppe nomads. And on a world of unchanging empires where technology stands still at swordpoint and dynasties have ruled their people for hundreds of generations without ever seeing a challenge to the status quo. There’s tinkering around the edges and the occasional flirtation with gunpowder or even steampunk, but for the most part swords and spears were good enough for the ancients, and they’re good enough for us.
Seth Dickinson can’t be having with that, and in The Traitor we’re living in a world where change is a constant destabilising force and trade and technology are the twin drivers. The evil empire is the Masquerade, a creepily effective culture which uses trade, influence, intrigue and occasional war to bind their neighbours into the empire. What makes them so wonderfully creepy is that they want to improve the human condition and make a world where everyone can live long and satisfying lives. There are just two catches. They have some very specific ideas of what a satisfying life ought to be, and they don’t care how many people they have to hurt and kill to make sure that future generations will do things the right way.
So, first they manipulate the local economy until it collapses into subservience, and then they move in a token presence to protect their trade interests, and then the purges start, followed by the plagues and famines. There’s never an actual war, but before very long, there’s another province with proper roads and drains and the general population are living the imperial dream; God help them if they try any other dreams, because that way lies brainwashing, torture, sterilisation and eventual execution.
What’s fascinating is the mix of technology that all of this takes; the Masquerade has some wonderfully cockeyed ideas on eugenics and breeding (and a predictable down on any sexual arrangements that don’t perfectly mirror their belief in one mummy, one daddy, and lots of children). They’ve got carefully considered policies on biological warfare. They’ve got Greek Fire and rockets and gunpowder. They’ve got hella sophisticated economic theories, and a gender policy which manages to be progressive and terrible all at once. In short they’re nothing like the kind of people who normally clutter up fantasy novels. They’ve got a plan, and they’re committed to change and development, even though their final objective is a safe stability for one and all. If they weren’t so repressive and awful, they’d be admirable, and one of the best bits about The Traitor is how ambiguous everyone feels about the Masquerade.
The gender policy is, as I said, both progressive and terrible. They don’t leave women stuck in the bedroom and kitchen, because that would be a waste of potential; but neither are women free to pick what they want to do. There are things the Masquerade thinks the female mind does better than the male, and so - for example - most of the naval officer corps are women because the Masquerade scientists have concluded women are better at navigation. This isn’t the only imaginary world I’ve seen where men and women are shown as equally likely to be in combat or management roles, but it’s the only one where it doesn’t feel stupid; wherever Dickinson shows us a culture with women in traditionally male roles, he sketches in a culture where it makes sense that this would happen.
Dickinson also does something I’ve long thought to be all but impossible. He can write a battle in a way that lets the reader see what’s happening and why it matters. There’s a big battle towards the end of the book, and Dickinson gets the sweep right. I’m not sure that all the tactics would have worked in our reality, but as each one unfolds into the next you can follow the developments and see how each one relates to what’s gone before and what’s coming next. That’s a party trick almost worth the price of admission even without all the other good stuff.
The Traitor hangs together well, and I read the last quarter in a rush, wondering where all of Baru’s machinations were going to take her and just many more double crosses were left. But more than that, I was wondering if this was going to wrap it all up in one book, or whether there would be more to come. And for once, what I wanted was more. And not just more of the characters, but more of this world and its strangenesses. The book wraps up its action well enough that it can stand alone, but I hope it’s the first of many.