REVIEW: The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

I was so excited to read The Monster Baru Cormorant after absolutely loving The Traitor Baru Cormorant, and calling Baru one of the best protagonists in fantasy. When the publisher sent me through links for both Monster and Tyrant at the start of iso, I thought this was going to be brilliant–the world was burning around us but I had two books I was so excited to read back-to-back during lockdown.

The story starts with failure: failure of courage, failure of combat, failure of death, and who knows how many others—all leading, eventually, back to the secret rebel accountant, Baru. And this is all part of an absolutely devastating opening quarter of book. I gobbled up the first quarter of this book in a couple of days. But that’s where my happiness and enjoyment of The Monster Baru Cormorant pretty much ended. And I do need to say in fairness to both author and publisher that, in hindsight, this was likely the wrong book to have read during these times. It’s a heavy read, has plenty of characters, and if you lose concentration for a moment, or forget a detail, or read it over a long period of time, like I did, then you’re going to miss things.

Our key cast of characters are fairly familiar, with Baru, Aminata, and Admiral Ormsmet leading the fray.

Baru is on a mission to find the mysterious Cancrioth–the mysterious puppet masters sitting behind and guiding the numerically superior (to Falcrest) Oriato Mbo people. They are famed to be immortal, and the Falcresti cryptarchs want that power. The cryptarchs topple nations with disease and commerce, they bring people after people under the iron shod boot of Falcrest. They have done so much just in the last few decades. Imagine what the Falcresti cryptarchs could accomplish within many lifetimes?

Animata, two navy voyages into her career, is now a landlocked torturer of her own people—know thy enemy—using whores to fill time and need and wishing Baru, dead or alive, would write her back. Then the Admiralty gives her command of a mission—the one mission she wishes didn’t exist.

Admiral Ormsment has a plan, and the Emperor of Falcrest is going to kill her and everyone she knows if she goes ahead with it. With two ships full of loyal crew, and a new alliance, it is time for her to hunt down Baru.

The second quarter of this book is a lot slower, sometimes a bit dreamlike, to how I remember book one. In this section we spent a lot of time in Baru’s head, trying to figure out the repercussions of her actions in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, deal with the shadow of her lover, figure out who wants her dead and who is helping her and why. The threads of where this book could go writhe out in what feels like a hundred trails of possibility.

Unfortunately, in hindsight, this is perhaps where I should have pulled the pin on The Monster Baru Cormorant–perhaps even just to try and pick it up again in happier days. All these threads just end up creating a bunch of confusion and an incredibly long drawn out second half of the book that does not deliver a satisfying ending–a dissatisfying bridge into book three. I feel like I can see what Dickinson was doing. I understand the plot. I can see the characters grow and change. I just can’t say there was ever a moment where I was thinking, “Wife? Food? Sleep? Forget that! I’ve got to drop everything and read!” as opposed to feeling obliged to finish the book so I could review it.

The frustrating thing is that all the right ingredients are there in this book. A super shadowy foe to discover and chase down. A nicely diverse and different group of characters. Enjoyable ethical systems and characters who truly see the world differently. Espionage and fear of discovery. Brutal, brutal, decisions and repercussions. A very gross but very cool low magic system. One wonderfully terrifying extra foe in Tain Shir. Real heartbreak. An end goal where it should have been a brilliant unveiling that drives home an unquenchable thirst to get into book three.

This book feels like it should have been half the length, like Dickinson had too much story for a duology and not enough story for a trilogy, and went with the latter, jamming all the good bits into book one and (hopefully, now) book three.

One thing I do really want to highlight is some really interesting commentary from the author on how culture is fluid—it’s in a perpetual state of change and has no set boundaries. That really rang true with the prejudices I have witnessed change in my lifetime around the LGBTQIA+ community, and I assume some of the change other countries have seen in their own cultures and populations as the world becomes more and more connected and people leave their countries to live on other shores in greater numbers, taking their own cultures and life experiences with them. This is something Dickinson does really well throughout this series so far. He ties themes that matter to readers now into his work in a manner that doesn’t have him on a soapbox preaching and info dumping, but has you seeing this change through the eyes of Baru.

In the end, this is a book I wanted to love so much. Again, I don’t know if it was the times I tried to read it in, or it was just as unenjoyable as I found it (I haven’t looked at anybody else’s reviews to compare), but I found The Monster Baru Cormorant to be a long grind towards an unsatisfying end. I really hope The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is as epic as I think it will be, but I’m going to read a few short, sharp, million-miles-an-hour books to get my mojo back before I open up Tyrant.

Buy The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

As with evil, reviews are a matter of perspective. Perhaps you’ll have a different experience to mine.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.