I received an e-arc of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.
Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up from the sand of her home and see red sails on the horizon.
The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They’ll conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She’ll swallow her hate, prove her talent, and join the Masquerade. She will learn the secrets of empire. She’ll be exactly what they need. And she’ll claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.
In a final test of her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. Aurdwynn kills everyone who tries to rule it. To survive, Baru will need to untangle this land’s intricate web of treachery – and conceal her attraction to the dangerously fascinating Duchess Tain Hu.
But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.
Ok, so, I am definitely in the minority on this, so it is highly likely that you may disagree with me, but… I was deeply disappointed by this book. I went in with very high (maybe too high) expectations and I desperately wanted to like this. But I just didn’t.
I guess there were quite a few things that just didn’t work for me personally. For starters, the writing style didn’t quite manage to catch my attention. It wasn’t objectively bad, mind you, but it just didn’t draw me in… This is of course an incredibly personal thing, but I found it heavy at best, and had real issues in keeping concentrated throughout the book. This was made worse by the fact that for about 25% of the book, I actually had no idea who anyone was.
Now, I am notoriously bad at learning names, but apart from our main character, Baru, I had just about no clue who we were talking about… And more than a quarter into the book is just too late for me to start figuring out who’s who. The main flaw, for me, was the fact that several characters were presented at once, with no real chance for me to actually associate names and roles before the next one came in. And, as any fantasy book worthy of this name would have it, each character just has to have a more complicated name than the one who came before… It must be some sort of rule. Throw in some geographical locations too (though points for having a map at the beginning!) and… voilà! You now have a throughly confused reader just hoping she’ll eventually figure out what’s happening.
This was all just extremely frustrating for me, and it did impact on my enjoyment of the book as a whole. It’s definitely something that relates to my personal taste, but reading is an entirely personal experience, so it’s possible it won’t bother you at all…
BUT! Not all was bad here, there were actually things I did enjoy, starting with diversity. There is an incredible variety of characters in this book, starting with Baru herself. She is a strong, independent woman, who’ll stop at nothing to achieve her goals. And she just so happens to be an LGBT and black character. I loved the fact that the diverse characteristics weren’t the main focus of Baru’s character: they are just a part of who she is, no more and no less than her mathematical abilities, her fierceness, or her focus. However, I had real issues in getting attached to Baru, although it is possible that I was just so focused on navigating the rest of the book that I didn’t take enough notice of her… Still, I hardly ever felt anything for her, good or bad. The rest of the characters (when I eventually managed to figure them out) were just sort of “there”, and didn’t really give me that much emotion… Which was a shame, because there was some real potential there.
I also liked the themes this book touches on and the reflection points it raises. Aside from Baru’s personal mission, which is the main focus of the book, several questions are raised in relation to important and relatively unexplored themes, such as the rights of minorities; issues relating to conquest and the relationship between conqueror and indigenous peoples; progress vs civil liberties, and so on… For me, this was probably the best thing in the whole book, and possibly the only reason I actually got to the end of it.
All in all, I had a very difficult relationship with this book. I had to seriously force myself to see the end of it, because for a very big part I was tempted to DNF it. Contrary to the majority of books, this one had no sprint in the beginning, picked up a lot in the middle, started lacking tension again towards the end and exploded at the very end. This continuous increase and decrease in tension, coupled with confusing characters and settings made this a very difficult read for me personally, even though I adored the themes explored by the author and the questions he raised.
As I said, this book just didn’t work for me based on my taste, so if it still makes you curious, by all means give it a try! It may be that the things that didn’t work for me won’t actually be an issue for you.