Fantasy intrigue, power politics, and revenge: Brooklyn resident Dickinson’s first novel.
The arrival of the Empire of Masks at Taranoke, 7-year-old Baru Cormorant’s home, signals a swift collapse of local autonomy, with the peaceful island’s economy subverted by financial deceit and little means of military resistance. The new imperial overlords offer significant advantages, including superior if doctrinaire education and medicine, but insist upon rigid sexual convention. Taranoke’s easygoing culture, with its acceptance of homosexuality and multiple parentage, crumbles—a brutal fact Baru grasps only when one of her two fathers is murdered by imperial troops. A highly intelligent child, Baru conceals her deep hatred. She meets Cairdine Farrier, who represents himself as a merchant and encourages her higher education in imperial schools. Baru formulates a secret plan to rise through the ranks of the imperial civil service and eventually reach the seat of power in the distant capital, Falcrest, since only there, she reasons, will she find a way to free her people. Farrier, she learns, is one of a handful of shadowy figures who form the real power behind the emperor. Having distinguished herself at school, she receives the powerful appointment of Imperial Accountant to the cold northern land of Aurdwynn. According to local judgment, Aurdwynn’s quarrelsome, competitive, rebellious duchies cannot be ruled, even by the empire. Baru discovers that her two predecessors both died in mysterious circumstances and trusts neither of her fellow imperial appointees, Governor Cattlson or Jurispotence Xate Yawa. Somehow, amid treachery, insurrection, and mistrust, Baru must concoct a scheme to further her greater ambitions. Against this persuasive backdrop, Dickinson’s dense, chewy, deftly orchestrated narrative cleverly exploits fiat money and debt as tools of statecraft, while offering little in the way of real plot surprises and, ultimately, failing to expose the personalities behind the characters’ literal and figurative masks.
A highly impressive debut that engages intellectually while rarely offering emotional involvement.