Tuesday 8 January 2019

Reading Notes: The Monster Baru Cormorant

SPOILERS, obviously. I started writing this when I had finished the book once already, so spoilers for the whole thing. 

This is my second run-through, and I'd imagine I'd require a couple more to grasp even more of the beautiful details in this second part, but for now, a collection of thoughts: 

I like that the multi-perspective nature of Monster builds a puzzle of sorts, both by showing different characters and different timelines. We have Baru, going forward after the traumatic ending of The Traitor Baru Cormorant - losing Tain Hu to the incoming tide at Elided Keep. 

We have a scheming character, intending to send Baru off to the Necessary King who is eager to take revenge on her and show his strength, a character that turns out to be the Jurisprudence Xate Yawa, and another horrifying antagonist (one that works really well with the title of the novel - Tain Shir is a former prodigy of Itinerant, Baru's predecessor in that role, who entirely lost herself in the process, and therefore a foreshadowing of what could happen to Baru). 

We have a flashback to 25 years in the past that gives some background on both Hesychast (Cosgrad Torrinde) and Itinerant (whom Baru met all those years ago as trader Cairdine Farrier), their struggle to prove to still mysterious Renascent that their individual approaches to "racial hygiene" (and aren't they both utterly freaking horrible in their own way) are correct in their studies of Oriati Mbo, the empire to the South that works so very differently from Falcrest and yet has proven more long-lived than anything else known in their world. 

Then there's the complex and struggling friendship between three entirely new characters, which we see through laman (a third non-binary gender in Oriati Mbo, which gives children the opportunity to choose their own gender, much to the horror of the Masquerade and its cryptarchs) Tau-Indi, an Oriati Mbo prince growing up with his friends, fellow Prince Kindalama and born-into-a-rich family Abdumasi Abd. They encounter Hesychast and Itinerant when they are held as friendly hostages, and their presence changes the course of their relationship. One of the the themes that runs through the book is that of "trim" - a concept that holds religious value to the people of Oriati Mbo but is hard to translate. It seems to be about the relationship between two people - Tau-Indi clarifies that he holds the "dyad" of two people as the central thing in everything he does - a relationship that can be tarnished through lies and other misdeeds, and that, if damaged, can have serious consequences, way beyond the two people involved. For example, when Tau-Indi 25 years ago started to resent his two friends for starting a relationship with each other that was separate from him and did not include him, he began to resent them both, and only later realised that he made the presence of Hesychast and Itinerant responsible for the change in their friendship - and the way he approached that change had greater ramifications for the outcome of the First Armada War between Falcrest and Oriati Mbo. It doesn't really matter if we the readers or Baru as someone who has grown up with Falcresti indoctrination (and as much as she despises the Masquerade, she does sometimes fall back on Falcrest's low opinion on other cultures and their particularities) believe that trim is something that exists and has real-world-consequences, because some of the characters profoundly believe that it does, and it affects their actions. One of the thins that Baru has previously been called out for is believing herself to be the only conscious player on the field, while thinking everyone else is a pawn (as predictable in their moves as Falcrest wishes its entire empire to be), so this time around, many things that happen in Monster are about other characters proving that they are the opposite of pawns. Plus, trim works beautifully with some of the truly exceptional coincidences, like Tau-Indi looking for the same person that Baru needs to find to track down the cancer cult that Hesychast and Itinerant are so eager to find (even though she is just trying to start a two-front war that will tear Falcrest apart and will put an end to the trade that is is lifeline), the same person that Baru's navy friend Aminata, who was so desperate to captain a ship but is now reduced to what she is too good at, retrieving information from prisoners, is tasked with torturing. And then, somehow, Aminata just ends up in the same place that Baru is at, after months and years of keeping her close to her mind, of trying to figure out if her allegiance to the navy runs deeper than her deep feeling of trust and love for the friend she hasn't seen in so many years (and how beautiful would it be if that friendship, and whatever else could grow from it, would somehow become the focus point of this whole series and the two novels remaining in it - wouldn't that be a sign that trim is, indeed, a real thing that influences the course of the world). 

Talking about Aminata, her bits in the novels are among my favourite. She didn't get much to do on her own in Traitor, but now she is a fully fleshed-out character, one that has built a shrine of sorts to her friend Baru and almost discards a poorly-written letter by a prisoner, only to later find out that it is a letter written by TAIN HU (!!!), one that asks her to prove herself to be Barus' true friend, her "KNIGHT", and the person to convince her that she does not have to be lonely in the world (which is exactly what Baru struggles with after sacrificing Tain Hu - a loneliness like a hole, like a whole literal part of her vision, from which unexpected things sneak up). These two are fated, as much as Aminata struggles with the fact that her good friend Baru turns out to be somehow at the centre of a conspiracy and as much as Baru struggles with the idea that maybe, back in the day, Itinerant set Aminata up to watch her (And to warn her away from "tribadism", which in any case didn't work out too well). 

(and, a sidenote, how many feelings can you have about the fact that Tain Hu didn't used to be able to write in their shared language Alphalone, but spent the last few months of her life LEARNING HOW TO, and then spent that ability specifically to recruit Aminata as Baru's knight? Inbetween teaching a seagull  who just happens to be on the same ship that Baru is on how to "dance for food", which I'm sure is way more than that). Tain Hu, who at the end of Traitor I thought was surprised by Baru's betrayal, but must have seen it coming from miles away, to the extent that she made sure that Baru would have her killed rather than being turned into a hostage for the sake of the cryptarchy)

So - trim. With Baru hungry to start a war that will crush the evil colonist empire crossing paths with gentle Tau-Indi, who despises war, who despises the cult she is seeking because it is the worst part of his culture's past. Tain Hu, still watching over Baru somehow - from her mind, where she conjures her up, and her seizure-induced dream (a seizure caused by Xate Yawa's attempt to turn Baru harmless, to steal her mind, so she can have her way), where Tain Hu speaks these words -

"There is a difference between acting out their story, and truly obeying their story. Do you know what it is?"

This question returns again and again. Baru asks it of herself, if it makes a difference whether someone is truthful and genuine when the outcome, the actions, are the same ("For what, in the end, was the difference between pretending perfectly to feel something, and actually feeling it? If you acted the same way, truth or lie?"). But then, this is the same person who, after sacrificing her beloved, lost half her world. The other argument would be that someone who acts against their own conscience, their own concept of what is good (even if they act for a deeper plan, for a greater game) will inevitably lose themselves in that game. Like Tain Hu, never believing that the Masquerade could be destroyed from the inside, because much like capitalism it simply absorbs all that oppose it and becomes stronger for it (and yet she loved Baru enough to trust that she would find a way, somehow). On the one hand, there's the Masquerade believing that the only way to hold their all-powerful cryptarchs in check is to hold their beloved ones over them - an Admiral who is a thorn in the side for career navy for Apparitor, who we meet here, the lost Prince, who's reemergence, from Baru's perspective, may convince a second front of a war to open. Xate Olake over Xate Yate, an addition even more recent than Baru. Someone, or something, over Itinerant and Hesychast (the flashbacks to their younger years open some possibilities for an answer to that, as does the idea that their stake in the game is sheer vanity of being right). Baru thinks she has smartly escaped this equation by having Tain Hu executed, except it doesn't even take Tain Shir that long to figure out that Baru still has parents to care about (two remaining parents, and truly, who knows what happened to her second father all those years ago?). Throughout the novel, the fact that she sacrificed Tain Hu sometimes makes her even more likely to be blackmailed into another act of cruelty, because if she isn't willing to sacrifice more, then isn't she betraying those previous, incredibly valuable sacrifices (something that is, brilliantly, termed an "ethical credit line" here), in a line of thought and narrative that opens the possibility that Baru is truly the villain in someone else's story, even if she is our hero. 

What happens to Baru is a literal split. It is medically diagnosed, as much as the limited resources of Falcresti psychotherapy can diagnose things (with its ideological limitations). Her left side and her right side respond differently to stimuli, and seem to hold different values. Throughout the book, there are moments where Baru questions if she even realises what her right hand is doing, and there is one specific moment where it is clear that she doesn't, always (when she leaves the Llosydanes islands to which she has tracked Abd's fleet, after destroying its economy, she rues not setting up a fund of sorts to secure the well-being of the inhabitants, except we find out, that someone actually did do just that - so likely, Baru's right hand). One morning she wakes up entangled in hostage Shao Lune's chains and doesn't quite remember how she got there, and her explanation is all the alcohol, but the following chapter which enlightens us as to what happened doesn't really clarify which Baru is willingly participating in this (and somehow, painfully enjoying it more than with much more evenly matched and lovely diver Ulyu Xe, whose self-possession reminds her in bits of Tain Hu).

There are opposing views of humanity, of power, of the obligations between people here. There's Aminata instinctively knowing that Baru is her friend, and that she must trust and help her, even if her navy background tells her that Baru is the enemy that must be controlled. There's Itinerant and Hesychast fighting over whether the future of Falcrest lies in indoctrinating the new citizens of the empire through its schools (with Baru being Itinerant's proof of success, while all the while her insane predecessor lurks to prove the opposite is true - as she is Baru in extremis, a perfect tool, eager to prove that Baru never loved Tain Hu) or in adopting what the Cancrioth did for centuries before they were cast out of Oriati Mbo - transplanting cancerous tumours from one person to another (and how fitting is it that Baru is so eager to find the Cancrioth and yet is literally haunted by one of its creature the entire time, getting glimpses of the monstrous whale that may be partly human, in a chilling visual reference to Annihilation). A practice that is now so taboo that it utterly horrifies Tau Indi, who so believes in trim.

There is a scene in the past, where the people of Tau's land are ready to take revenge on Hesychast and Itinerant for what happens in the war, but then a woman descends and brings an offering. Where it goes, we don't quite now, but we do know that Abd has made a deal with something, that he is repeating the same mysterious words over and over that are meant to have some kind of effect (a young man who is now Apparitor's distraction faints whenever the Cancrioth are mentioned, and it takes Baru entirely too long to put the pieces together - Hesychast and Itinerant set out to find their opposites in Oriati Mbo, and not only does Baru find them in the end, she also realises that they are seemingly capable of similar psychological programming). As much as Falcrest utilises the biological warfare of diseases (and promising cures, and hygiene, in exchange for giving up freedom), so do the Cancrioth willingly set free a terrible disease to bring chaos into the world (and maybe, in this novel, it all comes down to the riddle that is repeated to Baru over and over, one that she finally solves by refusing its premise of putting the blame upon the actors, and not the circumstances that decide the context of their possible actions - much like that old Falcrest saying frees the individual from any responsibility for what the empire makes it do).

And so much more:

  • Have we crossed paths with Kindalama? Is she the "pregnant" woman in the end? What exactly did Abd and Kindalama do when the flashback ends?
  • One of the greatest moments in this great novel is right after Baru loses her fingers and her first thought is literally whether she will still be good in bed. 
  • The greatest surprise here is that 14 years ago, Tain Shir - the woman who incidentally crossed Baru's path, and probably influenced, or at least fit right into, her thing for severe women in uniform, disappeared father Salm rather than killed him - which means that the catalyst for every single decision that Baru has made since is still alive, and under the control of the woman who wants to make Baru pay for insisting that she truly loved Tain Hu, and that she can destroy Falcrest from the inside. 
  • And talking about women in uniform who have left a deep impression on Baru, how next-level romantic is it that both Baru and Amanita are holding on to their talismans so dearly, the boarding sabre and the Cormorant feather?
  • Baru finds out that her remaining parents Pinion and Solit are part of a resistance against the Masquerade in Taranoke, one that depended heavily on the very Abd that is now being tortured by Amanita, the navy prison he landed in due to Baru's actions in Aurdwynn. 
  • Seth Dickinson says that the Masquerade series is about the "cutting line between subversion and complicity", and that's exactly the thin red line Baru is walking desperately, trying not to lose herself. Tain Hu thought it couldn't be done (and she thought that Baru could never go home again, because home changes with time, so it will never look the same as in Baru's childhood). Tain Shir insists that Baru has betrayed everything she ever touched, regardless of her insistence that her motives are ultimately good (as does Xate). But then, slowly and over the course of the novel, a voice starts to speak from the right of the page and the right of Baru's impaired vision (what a perfect visual metaphor) a voice that very much sounds like Tain Hu, gentle, caring, hopefully capable of keeping Baru going. And this in a world where the dominant empire is so keen on literally carving itself into the brains of those it conquered, so that any idea of freedom or otherness becomes unthinkable. 

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