Baru Cormorant is an outstanding protagonist in so many ways. She is completely committed to everything that she does. She is calculating, patient, methodical.
And utterly, utterly ruthless.
"Here - take a coin. Go buy a mango and bring it back to me, and I'll cut you a piece."
Baru kept the coin.
Yet despite the ruthlessness. Despite the macabre things that she ends up instigating throughout the book, I was still wholeheartedly rooting for her. Her relationships are always set in motion with the bigger picture in mind. She frequently refers to the other characters as 'pieces' that need to be moved around, manipulated, and played in such a way to enable her to come out on top and fulfil her sole desire - to reverse the destruction wrought upon her homeland by the Masked Throne and the Masquerade.
So the political intrigue is tangible throughout. The characters all serve their purpose, both for Baru, and for the story as a whole. The world presented is deliciously dark and cruel.
But the book's ultimate strength, without a doubt, is the romance (this coming from a humble reviewer who usually finds romance dull and uninspiring).
"She tucked a lock of wild hair behind her ear. It slipped loose at once."
THIS is how one writes romance. Her relationship with Tain Hu is not all giddy and soppy. It builds slowly and deeply. It is unpredictable. It is raw. It is engrossing and passionate and yet, perhaps throughout the entirety of the book, they share just one night together.
It's utterly heartbreaking.
Tain Hu will take her rightful place on the list of my favourite book characters ever. She begins as this playful individual with an ever-present sense of danger and threat to Baru and ends as someone fiercely loyal, unequivocally brave and dignified beyond reason or fairness. I was desperate to see her pull through to the end.
However, there are reasons why some would perhaps not be as receptive to this book as I was
Firstly, the first 40% was a real chore, centred on Baru's attempts to fix Aurdwynn's mounting monetary issues. She is, after all, an accountant. But reading about these issues was not particularly inspiring and I found myself glazing over the financial jargon that flies off the page from quite early on.
Secondly, much of the second half of the book, despite its greatness, reads more like a commentary on a great historical event, sweeping over large-scale events and battles and who killed who. It lacks the warmth and heart of the exchanges between the characters.
But despite these things, I would not hesitate to recommend this to someone who wishes to be challenged by morally ambiguous characters, who is stimulated by the intricate and bothersome problem of taking down an empire and who strives to find a romance worth wishing for.