The Big Idea: Seth Dickinson

In this Big Idea for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, author Seth Dickinson wants you to give up a cheer for the villain. Will you? I’ll let him try to convince you.


My master plan would’ve changed the course of history! I put my life into this — I leveraged politicians, I conjured up shell corporations, I put puppets on every throne and agents in every council. I built something! I had a vision!

And they call you a hero. What did you do? You stumbled in at the last moment and broke everything.

If heroism means standing up for the status quo, then I’ll have no part of it. The world’s full of suffering. Someone must act.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of a young woman trying to tear down a colonial empire, avenge her fathers, and liberate her home. The Masquerade wants to rule the world, so that they can fix it. Baru can’t beat them from the outside, killing them one by one with a sword the way Luke Skywalker or Aragorn might — unlike most evil empires, they’re smart people who take sensible precautions. Baru wouldn’t stand a chance against a single Masquerade marine.

Being surpassingly clever and excitingly ruthless, Baru decides to destroy the Masquerade from the inside. She’ll join their civil service, prove herself as a really awesome operative, and secure enough power to get what she wants. (She thinks Luke should do the same thing.)

Baru will, in short, become an evil overlord: a brilliant superspy plotting triple-cross operations right under the noses of her masters, conspiring to topple nations with banking schemes, daring heists, ornamental men, secret alliances, private armies, napalm, pirates, and the occasional sword duel, when absolutely necessary. An evil overlord working for good!

And man, was I excited to write an epic fantasy book about an overlord.

Do you have the same frustration with heroes that I do? They’re happy to sit around whuffling like a big fat seal until they get hit with an Inciting Event, and then the story has to convince them to go uncover the villain’s plan and stop him (usually him, alas) right in the nick of time.

But not the villain!

The villain’s the one who wants to change the world. The villain’s the one who constructs mountain lairs and secret cabals and schemes with threatening names and legions of snappily dressed goons. The villain gets to do stuff while the hero’s still scrambling around in confusion. Secret bank accounts! Strike teams! Blackmail! Disguise! Research into the forbidden arts! Dominating every conversation with radiant authority!

I don’t want to watch some lunk stumble his way to survival with swinging fists. I want to see — heck, I want to write about the character driving the action. The character who actually wants to be in this story. You can tell because she’s the one who woke up one day and said “I’m going to work really hard to change the world.”

If you want to protect how things are, get a hero. But if you want to change the world — if you want to shake the titanic, interlocked systems of civilization until they bend into a new and better shape — get an overlord.

And I do want to write about changing the world. The world’s not a good place yet. We should work hard to fix it, and that means working for change.

I wrote this book because I kept hearing an argument repeated: ‘a woman/a queer person/a person of color could never be the hero of a fantasy story. They’d be too oppressed to do anything. That’s just how things were.’

So Baru lives in a world where she’s targeted by awful oppression — racism towards people from her home island, sexism that denies her control over her own body, and homophobia that will see her maimed or killed if she makes a move on the wrong woman. Baru is the protagonist, and she refuses to be denied power and agency. Locked away in a Masquerade school? She’ll perform so well on the merit exams that they have to notice her. Exiled to a distant province as a mere accountant? She’ll take over the whole economy and dictate terms to royalty. Frozen out of government? She’ll build her own shadow government.

That’s the big idea in The Traitor Baru Cormorant: a protagonist who uses a villain’s tools for heroic endsBaru is a shark, an incorrigible bastard, a menace and a delight. She loves power. She’s going to get as much of it as she can.

She’s going to use that power to fix her world. And nothing — not even her own hopes and qualms — will stand in the way.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Seth Dickinson”

  1. Love it, sounds fantastic!

    I am also happy to be sitting around whuffling like a big fat seal. And I am known from time to time to wander around in confusion. MAYBE I AM A HERO! I just wish I had the overlord’s bank account.

    Added to my list to read…

  2. This book is so, so good (I read it on a long airplane ride). Also, as an economist, I loved the use of fiat money and inflation as means to an end (trying to avoid spoilers).

  3. I loved the preview on, and the protagonist’s “voice”, so this has found it’s way on my to read list. Though I am mindful that the whole thing sounds like it will end in tears….

    Is this a standalone, or part of a series, or both?

  4. Awesome, thanks for sharing this! Sorry I hadn’t heard of this before, but it sounds like exactly the unusual take on a protagonist that I’d really like. Sold!

  5. snowcrash, that’s how I feel exactly. Intrigued to read it but think it sounds like it ends in a super depressing way.

  6. I’m about 1/3 of the way through this book, and am thoroughly enjoying it. It is beautifully written, and the characters are very interesting. It’s very different from typical fantasy books, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next.

  7. Sounds awesome! -1 for lunkhead heroes, no respect for the work that goes into building a fully-equipped volcano lair and training all the minions. Have you seen what happens to your Workers Comp rates after 007 has blown through? It’s not pretty

  8. I have to say that this is one of the best sales pitches I’ve read for a book in a long time. I just HAVE to read it now.

    I mean, if he can write this well ABOUT the book, how good does the book have to be?

  9. This book is amazing. I hated it, it was brutal and awful and made me cry and want to nuke its entire world, and yet I love it with every fiber of my being, I want to read it again, I want it to win all of the SFF awards there are.

    This is an incredible book and everyone should read it, just like everyone should read “1984” despite every sentence of the book making you want to annihilate everything in it. (And especially that fucking prick Big Brother–dictators suck in general)

    Short, non-spoilery version: The Masquerade is literally the opposite of the stereotypical evil empire. It’s still evil, in every way (entrenched and officially-supported discrimination, incredibly queer-phobic, and a human rights record that makes Bashar al-Assad look like Mr. Rogers), but it is SMART. This is a colonial empire ahead of its time, and it is both insidious and chillingly evil.

    Best RL comparison? The Masquerade is the opium trade, alcohol, “Indian Schools”, and smallpox blankets, and everyone else is Qing China/Native Americans/every group that was ever abused by colonial powers. In terms of structure, the Masquerade is all of the worst Victorian discrimination, American false promises of self-advancement, and rigid stratification and insidious social control of Imperial China. It is evil, and it is smart, and nobody is ready for it.

    The protagonist is everything I’ve ever wanted in a protagonist (not straight, not white, not male, not another fucking farm boy, intelligent, politically savvy, and even from a non-heteronormative society!). And then…well, opinions will obviously differ on this, but I feel that she loses herself and loses her way in her quest for revenge.

    This book is beautiful and awful and wonderful and horrible all at the same time. It is a brilliant novel that tells a great story, is flawlessly written on a technical level, and averts, inverts, subverts, or deconstructs literally every fantasy trope that I can think of.

    It is also not for the faint of heart, weak of stomach, or easily-triggered. It is not a book to be reread; it is a book to read once because it is beautiful and socially important, and then to never pick up again because it tore your emotions to tattered shreds.

    This book wrecked me emotionally in the same way as certain Cardassian Occupation episodes of DS9 (for example, “Duet”, which I can only watch because at least the bad guys don’t win completely, and Kira doesn’t lose her soul). I’m supporting it all the way for the next round of Hugos, and I hope Dickinson gets the Campbell, but there are friends who I cannot and will not in good conscience recommend it to.

    tl;dr: Beautifully written, emotionally powerful, IMO extremely pessimistic. Some could argue that the bad guys start the book with an unfair advantage, but IMO Falcrest is basically the British empire with a dedicated and extremely well-planned mission to conquer the world and remake it in their image. Not for those who are uncomfortable with the bad guys winning no matter what (no spoilers), entrenched and officially-enforced extreme bigotry.

    In other words, it’s low-fantasy Mistborn with all the evil taken Up To Eleven and at best Black-and-Gray morality. I love it, but honestly I’m probably not going to reread it. I’d rather reread a Brandon Sanderson book, or Redshirts, or the Belisarius Series (which Reconstructs rather than outright Deconstructing classic fantasy hero tropes).

  10. I read it and was so totally blown away that I couldn’t even find my way back to my own mind for hours after I finished it. This book will become a classic. I’m certainly not the first one to say this, I’m definitely not going to be the last.

  11. Dang! I’ve been reading Whatever for a while now, and browsing The Big Idea for a while, and this is the first time I’ve gotten to the end of one and said, “wow, I’ve got to read that!” (Not counting the ones where seeing the authors name was enough for me.) Thanks for posting this. You’ve definitely got me on your hook!

  12. Whuffling like a big fat seal? That’s sizeist and speciesist! Not to mention my dictionary says ‘whuffling’ is not a real world. Now where did I leave my fish? It IS Saturday after all. Whuffle! Whuffle!

  13. Ornamental men? Sign me up! ;-)

    More seriously: This was already on my list to read the excerpt and probably buy – it already sounded good – but this “Big Idea” piece makes me twice as intrigued, and the comments above multiple that by some other factor. Definitely picking this one up….

  14. Just finished it last night. Pretty much what Floored said above — that was a _brutal_ read.

    The wholesale-priced Hygiene of the Empire and the retail-level sociopathy of the protagonist really serve to bring each other into stark, awful relief. I feel like I’m going to have to mainline kitten videos for a couple of hours just to get the Wrong off of me.

    More like this!

  15. “One day it’s the ringing of bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next everyone is sitting around complaining that since the tyrant was cast down no one has been taking the rubbish out. Because evil people always have a plan to rule the world. The good ones just don’t seem to have the knack.”

    ‘a woman/a queer person/a person of color could never be the hero of a fantasy story. They’d be too oppressed to do anything. That’s just how things were.’

    This is NUTS in capitals. The generic, boilerplate Heroic Fantasy story involves someone from humble beginnings! The hero’s got to struggle against initial disadvantages, or what kind of a story is that? They’ve got to be abandoned in the woods, or maltreated by evil step parents or Ugly Sisters, or washed up in the reeds after being set adrift or whatever – at the VERY LEAST we expect them to grow up as the child of a poor farmer – and then triumph against the odds through courage and intelligence and good nature.

    Poor, oppressed people being ultimately successful because of their inherent virtue and bringing about the victory of truth and right is the whole point of the genre.

    That is, after all, why we call it “fantasy”.

  16. I very much look forward to read this, the excerpts have been fascinating. Although for what I get of them, the Masquerade is … well, at least ideologically, not racists… or something different from our world version of racism in slavery.

    They seem to believe all the people in the world should be part of it and they seem to want to have the very best of them as part of their Empire. Which gives Baru an opening.

    But again, I’ve not read it, and there are elements in the excerpts that points that their idea may be more akin to “and they are MARVELOUS at task X so thats what they ALL should be in our empire and we will breed them for that”. So, lets wait till I find out, after pay day :P

  17. (Also they are cruel bastards that dont care one bit for the individual lifes destroyed in their pursuit of their vision of the perfect world, just in case anybody gets the impression I’m about to defend them)

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