Before we move onto a review that will have slight spoilers, I would heartily recommend the first novel to anyone who might’ve missed it. Here’s what I had to say for it in one of my very first Goodreads reviews, back in 2015:
A masterfully crafted tale of deception and intrigue in a beautifully constructed fantasy world, Seth Dickinson's debut will leave you craving for so much more.
Baru Cormorant is a fascinating protagonist, a savant moved by a singular purpose - to change an opressive empire preoccupied by a vision of genetic perfection, from within. In pursuit of this one goal, Baru Cormorant will readily sacrifice everything.
Few fantasy novel endings in recent memory have packed such a punch - Cormorant's last betrayal is all-engulfing and absolutely gut-wrenching.
I just can't wait for the sequel!
Turns out, I could! It wasn’t a pleasant wait though, and you’ll pardon me if I sincerely hope that I won’t be faced with another three years before "The *Insert Blood-Curdling Noun Here* Baru Cormorant" comes out. Now then, onto the heart of this review! (Slight Spoilers ahead; I once again implore you to first read The Traitor Baru Cormorant first).
This novel doesn’t tell the story of Baru Cormorant, Imperial Accountant of Ardwynn. It tells the story of Agonist, imperial agent to the Falcresti Throne, on her quest to further her influence over the Masquerade.
The tools Baru employed during her time as Imperial Accountant, the Masquerade’s tools of monetary and economic control over its far-reaching provinces are marginally less useful in Agonist’s present circumstance. In the few cases she does employ her accounting skills, we’re treated to some of the novel’s most fun and thrilling moments; Baru thrives on nothing quite like economic chaos of her own design, and it only takes a couple of rumours on her part. The free market does the rest!
But this novel is a lot different. More introspective; the consequences of Baru’s actions at the end of Book #1 hound her throughout the main body of the text, and many of the wounds she carries on in this are of her own design. Another large difference between the previous book and this one has to do with the fact that Baru’s isn’t the only Point of View we follow. Characters both old and new receive PoVs; the one I most enjoyed was the first-person PoV of Xate Yawa, the former Jurispotence of Ardwynn, an old hand at the game Baru has only recently began to play.
The Monster Baru Cormorant surprised me by going in a very different direction than the one I expected it would go in. I had come to expect Baru entangling herself deep within the Masquerade’s web of deceits and intrigue at Falcrest, the heart of the vast commercial Empire; this book instead sees Baru with less authority than ever before. Baru is often too preoccupied with the task of surviving against other more-than-capable schemers, and despite her considerable new-found powers in the Masquerade, she is forced to undertake a dangerous new venture that’ll send her travelling to new lands with unlikely companions.
Despite a shift in tone towards the adventurous, this novel doesn’t present a read that’s any less cerebral; and the moral greyness of our protagonist is as thrilling as ever. Hounded by her enemies, her mind shattered, this book offers more than one glimpse at Baru Cormorant at her very lowest, mad with grief, self-pitying and oftentimes drunk.
I loved it, but I do have a few complaints.
Like its predecessor, this novel too is broken into three parts. The pace of the first part, I felt was just a hint too slow. I forgive that though since this first third of the novel also uses the imperative voice in a brilliant, beautiful and thoroughly effective way.
This is a middle book, so it also ends on a pretty open note, which isn’t necessarily my favourite thing; the end to the Traitor was in many ways perfect because it showed the full arc that made of young Baru Cormorant a traitor and saw her adopt her new name – Agonist.
My next, and last complaint contains HEAVY SPOILERS! Read on at your own peril!
The introduction of this particular element towards the end of the book feels somewhat jarring; Seth Dickinson has created a world steeped in such realism, and introducing a sort of magic to it was unexpected. Seeing as little is known about it, and it does seem somewhat science-y, I’ll reserve judgement until the third novel in the series comes out.
Spoilers End Here.
The Monster Baru Cormorant was an excellent sequel that never ceased to surprise and thrill me. I’m pleased to recommend it to anyone who read and enjoyed The Traitor; be warned of the slight tonal shift; Seth Dickinson is certainly unafraid to try new things. I sure hope he and his publishers over at Tor don’t force us to wait for another three years before the third book comes out!
This book is a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars; rounded up to 5 on Goodreads, since I hate rounding down.