My review of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant is up at NPR Books. This is a taste of it:

To read The Traitor Baru Cormorant is to sink inexorably into a book that should not be anywhere near as absorbing as it is — to realize that the white-knuckled grip with which you hold it was provoked by several consecutive pages of loans, taxes and commodity trading. It seems impossible that the economics of a fantasy world should be so viscerally riveting, but they are, and it’s incredible: You think you’re on solid ground right up until you feel that ground closing around your throat.

I wrote this review without having read any others (which is my preferred MO where reviewing books is concerned). Once I’d turned it in I read Foz Meadows’ take from early reading, and Liz Bourke‘s. (Both are spoilery.) Both critique aspects of the book’s world-building and its representation of homophobia and queerness. I disagree, respectfully and completely, with these critiques — as one might expect from someone who’s read the whole book seeing people offering up their experience of the first few chapters (which is a completely legitimate thing to do; both Meadows and Bourke clearly indicate how much of the book they’ve read and how These Are Not Reviews). Meanwhile, Kameron Hurley wrote a passionately personal review in support of the book, and Arkady Martine wrote a (super spoilery but fantastically thorough) engagement with it, with reservations, taking the whole of these conversations into account.

Un/Relatedly, all of us are queer.

This last part is really important to me, because I’ve been watching conversations emerging — mostly on Twitter, mostly subtweeting, mostly in fits and starts — trying to categorize responses to the book according to some sort of ticky-box taxonomy of readers. I find this utterly repellent. Some people will suggest that only queer people have problems with the book, ergo it must write queer people’s lives poorly; others will counter with “well, Amal liked the book,” as if that could be the last word on the subject; still others will try to parse whether it’s my Brownness or my Queerness that has shaped my response, in pursuit of some sort of One True Response to the book.

This is all the rankest bullshit. It’s also kind of Incrastic, which is ironic.

There are straight white people who didn’t like this book. There are straight white people who did. There are queer people who loved it, and hated it, and had problems with it. This is all fine and normal and okay. It’s insulting, and limiting, and degrading to look at these conversations and impressions as some kind of vote-tallying representing Queer Opinion or Brown Opinion in order to arrive at a monolithic pronouncement on Dickinson’s success or failure.

What you could do instead: listen to the people you trust, whose taste you know and understand and can measure against your own, in terms of what you want to read or not read.

I have enormous sympathy for bouncing off things, for knee-jerk responses to media. Fury Road left me feeling hollow and miserable. I can’t watch Breaking Bad. I literally, physically can’t. Four episodes in I felt the tension was going to damage me and I abandoned it and I am 100% happy to have done so. I have a ludicrously specific allergy to body-swap stories. I have a really hard time with horror, except when I don’t, and I’m still working on figuring out why that is.

If you don’t want to read about bad things happening to queer people I completely, totally understand. I get not wanting to be punched where you’re already bruised, and trying to figure out whether or not this book will do that. All power to you on making your decision based on the things people have said about it and your own self-knowledge and resources.

But please, leave off trying to sort responses based on people’s identities. All that does is make queer people who disliked the book afraid of speaking up, queer people who did like the book worried about whether or not they’re sufficiently queer for the conversation, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. As if consensus is the default not to be deviated from instead of a thing that sometimes happens. There is no One True Opinion to be had. There’s only the one that’s right for you.

Talking about books is one of the keenest pleasures I have in this world. It’s right up there with watching hummingbirds and lightning storms and drinking tea and going swimming. To really talk about a book, to have delved in or bounced off and try to figure out the hows and whys of our reading, where they matched up and where they diverged, is delicious to me. I love it.

I hate to see people feel afraid to do it.

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19 Responses to THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT and Queer Responses

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  6. “What you could do instead: listen to the people you trust, whose taste you know and understand and can measure against your own, in terms of what you want to read or not read.”

    Which is all very well, except Liz Bourke (whose opinion on SFF probably matters more to me than anybody else’s right now) hated it. And Max Gladstone and Kameron Hurley, who I don’t know from Adam as reviewers but who both write incredibly well, loved it. And that dichotomy was why I had to read it!

  7. Difficat says:

    I’m about half way through the book, and so far I am enjoying it but not loving it. I think the heavy exposition at the beginning gave it a bit of a cold, distant feeling, which was sad because clearly that was when we were supposed to start empathizing with Baru. And after that, she has been hard to warm up to.

    I think Baru Cormorant, for me, had a disadvantage because I just finished The Dark Forest and The Golem and the Jinni, some of the best books I’d read recently. Hard acts to follow, those.

    P.S. I mostly can’t watch horror, either, but for some reason I wasn’t bothered by “The Cabin in the Woods” at all. Did you see that one?

    • I did see Cabin in the Woods and thought it was fantastic though the very end was a bit of a let-down. It’s weird, I’m often more impressed by horror films than horror in books, though I’m equally unlikely to seek them out. More to think about!

  8. gargy says:

    I’m a lesbian, and I absolutely loved this book, for the record. The ending was rather traumatizing, and yeah, I understand if gay people don’t want to read this sort of sadness, but I still found it a brilliantly plotted and meaningful novel. I love Tain Hu so much!

  9. rrapmagazine says:

    So as a queer POC, this book was a revelation in terms of representation for me. BUT, so as to not belabor there are a couple of things I would have liked to see or felt hurt the story.

    Queer communities: Even in the most oppressive societies, they manage to thrive and exist. I think some showing up here would have been useful for worldbuilding. Given some of the tactics of the Masks, it would seem to even make sense that they would allow these communities to exist.

    The Empire’s glamour: It just wasn’t there for me. We’re supposed to believe in something alluring about this thing and there’s nothing there for me to justify it.

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