Reading is a very personal experience. And so we start here, with the personal:
What would you sacrifice, to achieve your life’s ambition?
I know what I’ll sacrifice for mine, because I’ve already done it, and it is this:
I will sacrifice everything. All of it.
And I will never look back.
I didn’t have any hobbies in school outside of writing, or many friends. I came home and I wrote. I wrote in class. I wrote during summer breaks. I wrote on vacation. I wrote when other people went to birthday parties and dances and family reunions and played video games. I worked a lot of grinding temp jobs to make ends meet while I wrote. I cleaned dog kennels. I sold popcorn. I worked in a vitamin store. I was a waitress. But always, I wrote, because all I ever wanted was to be a writer, to be published. I figured I’d spend my whole life working food service jobs, trying to get a novel published, because I didn’t have the time to invest in being good at anything else.
It turns out that getting published and making a career of it is easier for some people than others. For me, it was and is hard. I had to burn down a lot of other things around me. I still do. And I’m still a long way from making a living at this.
Not everyone has it as tough as me. Some have it much, much harder. Some have it easier.
But I’m not naturally talented. I’m not a savant. So all I can do is work harder.
What We Give Up
I blew through a series of disastrous relationships in my mid-twenties. People wanted love and commitment from me, but all I wanted was a book contract. I started writing GOD’S WAR when I was 24, the ninth novel in a long line of failed novels that I had been writing for the last 12 years. When people asked me what I did, there was only this: writing, and writing, and writing. I wasn’t as good as other people, and I knew it, but dammit, I wanted it, and I was willing to work for it. I was willing to fight up through what I was told was an inherently rigged game: women were going to be reviewed less, judged more harshly, and feminist work in particular was going to be a hard sell. The system was broken, they said. You don’t have a chance, they said. You can’t sell that fucking book about a bisexual bounty hunter and bugs, they said, because nobody knows how to fucking market it.
I decided that if nobody else knew how to fucking market my shit, I’d figure out how to market it my own damn self.
I finished and shopped around GOD’S WAR when I was 27, but it took nearly four more years of messy publication madness for it to see print.
I had to work harder.
When GOD’S WAR finally hit, it was the passion in the writing, folks said, that drew them to it. I wasn’t an exceptional writer when it came to plot or prose as yet (getting better), but my passion and grit shone through. It was the passion and drive and persistence (and luck) that helped get MIRROR EMPIRE picked up even after my third book in the GOD’s WAR series tanked. And it was MIRROR EMPIRE, paired with the success of an unapologetically feminist essay (of all things!) called “We Have Always Fought” that finally helped me generate the respectable sales numbers and public profile I needed to sign more contracts.
Feminist work doesn’t sell? Well, fuck you.
I will sell it my own damn self.
That’s a long road, and a long time to give things up to get there. Nearly twenty years.
I read an essay from Samuel R. Delany once where he talked about all of the things he had given up in his pursuit of being an exceptional writer – his health, his relationships, having children, a profession other than writing or teaching. Some people had to work harder, he said, and to work that hard at one thing – especially if you’re working up inside a system that’s not friendly toward you and your work because of your race, your gender, who you go to bed with, what your politics are– sometimes you have to give up everything else… and even then, there are no guarantees that you’ll make it.
I saw a lot of myself in that essay.
I was the person who worked and worked right up until getting hauled off to the emergency room when I was 26, yelling “I’m fine, I’m fine!” from the back of the ambulance before learning I had a chronic illness and all that time writing was going to have to count for extra, because now not only was I not starting out better than other people, or as a dude writing about dudes, but I was going to have less time than other people to write all this bullshit, too.
My path to getting published, when I look back, is not only a long slog of hard work, but a ruthless slash-and-burn wreck of everyone and everything that I saw getting in the way of that. I’ll note that it wasn’t until after GOD’S WAR sold the first time that I hooked up with the person who would later become my stellar spouse. But that was about all I could manage and still fulfill my contracts and manage my illness. I had my tubes tied three months after GOD’S WAR was finally published.
It’s only as I write this that I see the grim irony in that.
I knew what I had to give up to have what I wanted. I knew the odds were stacked. I had to push back.
I had to work harder.
Sacrifices May Vary
Does everyone have to give up everything to be a writer, or a lawyer, or a politician, or an accountant who rules the world? Of course fucking not. Most authors have children and alternate, successful high-powered careers outside of writing, and a multitude of friendships and fountain of hobbies. I see these people all the time. Some even have first novels that hit it big the first time out, and get to give up their day jobs and create their own schedules. Some aren’t in this to be career writers, and are more than happy to write a book a decade without trying to murder themselves at the frenetic book-a-year (or more) pace.
But not all of us. Not all of us. Some of us start much further behind. Some of us have to grind to keep up. And we forget that sometimes. We want to believe in overnight successes. We want to believe we can have everything and sacrifice nothing.
The truth is, we can’t, always. That’s a shitty thing to hear. It’s a shitty thing to live.
And it’s why, sometimes, we need stories that acknowledge that.
I offer this preamble to my review of THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT because reading experiences are, by their very nature, incredibly personal and subjective things. Only half of the reading experience is what the author puts on the page. The other half is what you bring to it.
I brought a lot of baggage to Baru.
Luckily, Baru has baggage too.
I got the pitch for this book from editor Marco Palmieri sometime in November of last year. In part, the pitch went like this:
When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru Cormorant vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free. Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Cormorant discovers it’s on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize. But the cost may be much higher than she is willing to pay. For Baru’s meticulous plans did not include falling in love with the woman she might have to betray to win the long game of saving her people.
I had read a short story by the author, Seth Dickinson, called “A Tank Only Fears Four Things” and it gutted me, so I was intrigued to see how he’d pull off this story. I knew Dickinson was a mean, precise writer who wielded words with scalpel-like precision, and he wasn’t afraid to hit you just where it hurt most.
What I did not expect was to get the book and cry through the first forty pages of the book.
THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s set up from the beginning as a tragedy about power and commerce and sacrifice, and that’s exactly what you get. As in every good tragedy, Baru is given the opportunity to change her course many, many times throughout the novel. But she is single-minded and ruthless in her pursuit of vengeance against the empire that destroyed her home and murdered her father. She is willing to give up everything and everyone to achieve her life’s ambition.
She’s going to change the power structure of the whole world. And she’s going to do it without picking up a gun or a sword or head-butting anyone in the face. She’s going to do it with a pen.
Indeed. I have no idea why I liked her so much. None at all.
What will you sacrifice?
If you are Baru Cormorant, you will sacrifice everything.
There are some folks who won’t like this book. It’s a book where bad things happen to people. But what makes this an inspiring book, for me, as opposed to a story of suffering where Everything is Awful, is that this story doesn’t exist just to tell you that Everything is Awful and colonialism is Bad and We’re All Fucked. It says Everything Can Be Awful but even people who endure the worst – people who are colonized, who are beaten, who are overwhelmed by far greater numbers, by technology – can pick up a pen, and a sword, and work their asses off, and give up everything, and they can win.
Baru drives this story. Things don’t just “happen” to her, just as they did not just happen to me. This is not a book about someone lying around and having terrible things happen to them and boo-hoo isn’t life shit let’s all die. Baru orchestrates this plot, and the empire that seeks to destroy her way of life, like a maestro, certainly with far more agency than I’ve ever managed to achieve in the orchestration of my own life.
And I can say Baru’s journey is one of grim optimism. Yes, she gives up everything.
But you know what? (spoilers) She achieves what she set out to achieve, even if it meant giving up far more than she ever imagined.
Whether or not winning was worth giving up everything, well, that’s something for her to figure out.
But there’s a grim comfort in that, for people like me who aren’t sure if we’re going to win, who aren’t sure if there’s an end game.
Not all of us win.
The Bad Ass Accountant
“I work in banking,” the reader who won my ARC bundle contest said after reading THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT, “and Baru is the most BAD ASS ACCOUNTANT EVER.”
And she is.
In truth, it was refreshing to read a book where a protagonist topples whole governments with… like, banking schemes and commerce and shit. The one time in the book she picks up a sword is played as a comic moment, because she really has no idea how to use it. This is a fearless and ruthless intellectual hero, and I honestly can’t think of anyone in fiction like her.
Is there an over-emphasis here on the horror of systematic homophobia in this colonialist society? Probably. Is the worldbuilding odd in that respect, as homophobia of this nature is, in our world, largely tied up in Abrahamic religions? Sure. My God’s War books have some systematic homophobia in various societies, reinterpreted and reimagined to fit in each particular culture. The Worldbreaker books don’t. That has a lot to do with one being SF and one being fantasy. It’s a fair criticism. How and why relentless homophobia exists in this world isn’t fully teased out. But it’s no more or less lazy than some other fantasy worldbuilding I could eviscerate here, especially in regards to how woman are treated in most other books. And though sometimes it sucks to live in this world, goddammit, every single one of the people struggling through it are real people, not cardboard cutouts, not stereotypes, and not people who exist to be shit on.
There’s something to be said for that.
At any rate, as Baru climbs up through the ranks of power to infiltrate and undo her enemy, the book also asks important questions about whether or not those of us who try and change a system from the inside are forever changed by it. Does the process of infiltrating the system transform us into the very enemy we were fighting?
And this was the other very personal question that the book laid bare for me, and why I responded so strongly to it, because it’s a question I’m sitting here asking myself as I type up my own work, and as I share posts like this. After ten years of yelling on the internet, and twenty of writing and submitting work, I’ve got a voice people are listening to. Big posts of mine will reach twenty thousand or more readers. My books have now crested that reader mark, too. That’s not the hundreds of thousands or millions that other people see, but compared to the hundred people who used to read this blog ten years ago, that’s a lot. When I speak, people listen, and I’ve become even more aware of what I’m saying.
With great power comes great responsibility, and all that bullshit.
Grinding on Up
As I grind up through the publishing millhouse I am very aware of who and what I’m becoming, and watching Baru struggle with that at a higher level, with more frightening stakes, tore up my insides because I have felt something like that here on my own tiny little plane of existence.
You spent all this time getting here, but now, really, are you any better than the people in the system who you were fighting against?
I know that no matter what I do, or how good I hope to be, there will be a lot of people who will always see me as the enemy now. I, like Baru, have become part of The Empire. I’ll read stuff about me online and it’s very clear that to many folks on the margins, I’m the worst shit in the universe. There are younger feminists ranting hard and long about what a sellout I am. People think it’s all far-right hate mail, but my most vociferous haters are actually folks on the far left who think I’m far too conservative and conventional. I’ve become an Enemy of the People.
I’m always going to be someone’s enemy, because people need enemies…and because I’m doing the best I can in a system that’s so very broken.
And I look at me, and I look at Baru, and I look at our choices, and I wonder if this is the only end game, or if we could have succeeded without wrecking all this destruction, and without becoming a part of the very system(s) we set out to destroy. I wonder if it was inevitable that all of our choices led us here, or if there was another way to get here.
On Tragedy and Comfort Fiction
I’ve talked before about how tragedy is like comfort fiction for me, and that’s why I found THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT to be such cathartic read. I could read about somebody asking the same questions I’ve had to ask, someone whose stakes are far higher, whose life is far grimmer, whose resolve is far stickier, and I can step back and watch someone else navigate that horrible road, and I can cry for them in a way I can’t cry for myself.
She deserves the pity. I don’t. I probably just need a fucking vacation. There’s a lot less at stake if I burn out than there is when Baru burns out. And her burn out is coming. I can feel it.
I don’t know what Baru or I are going to have any hard answers, in the end. Maybe we’ve done terrible things to get here (I have not destroyed the economies of whole countries, but looking at some of the vitriol spewed my way online, you’d think I might have). Maybe we’ve become terrible people in the process.
I know there are some who hate tragedies all together, especially ones with queer protagonists, and I get that: this isn’t the book for you. But you know what? I’m queer and female and my life sure has felt fucking tragic at times, screaming from the back of an ambulance, getting evicted from my apartment, living on expired insulin because I was too poor to buy new stuff. I am at the point in my life where I can cheer and say I’m winning now (FOR NOW), but at the time it pretty much looked like I’d given up everything and gotten nothing. I have been Baru standing there holding ash in my hands and wondering if it was all fucking worth it.
The truth is that sometimes, especially in broken systems like ours, those of us who aren’t playing on the lowest difficult setting have to give up a lot of things to achieve our life’s ambition. That’s the reality. And yes, I need stories that say fuck that, and envision better futures, and I even write some of those! But sometimes, just sometimes, I need stories that acknowledge that fight, and that sacrifice, and that invite me to interrogate that experience, and to let me feel it, really feel it, in a way that’s safe.
Because I need to ask, and to understand, who I am at the end of all of this – am I really Luke Skywalker, fighting the good fight against evil, or has fighting up through the system turned me into just another Stormtrooper for the Empire?
What side will Baru be on, in the end?
Let’s all find out.
Read it and weep.