It’s hard to believe, but this was the first full length novel I’ve read this year! The ebook had been available for free via the Tor Publishing newsletter a little while back and despite my best intentions, I promptly let it collect virtual dust upon download. Fortunately, one of my goals for the year is to make a more determined effort to actually read the books I own and this felt like a good place to start my journey. Published in 2015, this hard fantasy novel is both the author’s debut effort and the beginning of the much acclaimed Masquerade series.
The story is told from the perspective of a young woman named Baru Cormorant. Born in the small seaside nation of Taranoke, we first meet her as a child seeking to understand what the arrival of ships from the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, informally referred to as the Masquerade on account of the masks worn by its officials, signifies and why it troubles her family. Through her inquisitive nature, Baru inadvertently attracts the attention of an influential patron and with his encouragement attends the local branch of the Imperial Academy where she excels in her studies despite her own misgivings and parents’ disapproval. Upon graduating she is appointed the Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn, a divided and rebellious nation that serves as a vital strategic asset for Flacrest. While some question whether an inexperienced youth from a newly acquired territory can fill the position, Baru, however, fully realizes the power granted to her and how to wield it. Finding allies will be a delicate game though, for as much as the local Dukes and her Imperial colleagues have their own agendas, Baru is willing to sacrifice anything to fulfill her own; the power to destroy the Flacrest’s empire from within.
I’m just going to come out and say this book was amazing! I loved the non-stop intrigue and couldn’t bring myself to put it down no matter how many times the story punched me in the gut. This was a decidedly heavy novel, not so much on account of the writing style but rather in the harsh decisions made by Baru along the way. What really made the story stand out were the lengths to which Baru was willing to go in the grim pursuit of her ultimate goal, betraying herself in heartbreaking and often brutal ways time and again. Along these lines, I was rather surprised by the ending even though I called it pretty early on. It wasn’t necessarily what happened that got me, but rather that the author actually went there. At one point I said out loud to myself, “man it would be pretty messed up if they did X,” and low and behold that’s exactly what Baru decided!
Another highlight of this book was its impressive world building. Even though the action was largely centered around a few specific locations, the world felt huge and well thought out. Closer to home, the Masquerade’s imperial ambitions combined with its horrifying social conservatism and eugenics programs made a compelling and sadly very believable enemy. It allowed for some excellent reflections upon the ways a colonizing force can exert its will over subject populations without explicit military intervention. There was also plenty of political intrigue going on both inside and outside of Falcrest’s borders that I suspect will grow more complex as Baru continues her journey.
Although I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this one, here is where I’ll wrap the review up. While I sincerely doubt there’s a happy ending coming in this tale, I am nonetheless very eager to get started on the rest of the series since I may be able to complete it in relatively short order. Book two, The Monster Baru Cormorant, was published last year while the third installment is currently slated for later this year.