Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a twisty, gritty, and gripping first novel of a new series that has the potential to be a worthy successor to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. We selected it as one of our Best Books of the Month in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Below, Dickinson explains how he built the complex world of Baru Cormorant, who is born on an island conquered by the Empire of Masks and who travels to Aurdwynn to seek her revenge on the empire that destroyed her family and her traditions.
Hi! I’m Seth, author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant—an epic fantasy about a young woman’s mission to tear down a sly, brutally efficient empire from the inside.
Baru’s a prodigy in the subtle use of power. She manipulates trade, taxation, gossip, piracy, policy and rebellion to get what she wants: a position of authority in the Empire of Masks, high enough to rip that same Empire apart.
Oh, no. Do you know what that means? I have to make taxes exciting!
Most of Baru’s story is set in in Aurdwynn, a land of simmering rebellion and cultural collision. Aurdwynn is our chessboard—the playing field for Baru’s maneuvers, her manipulations of money, blackmail, armies and lies.
Aurdwyn is a complicated place, host to four major languages, two economic systems, three family structures, thirteen rival Dukes and Duchesses with unearthly names and horrible family drama. Baru runs around the whole country organizing conspiracies. It’s a lot to keep track of!
But this book’s a fast-paced thriller, so the intrigue’s got to feel as sharp and intuitive as a fistfight. How do we make it easy to understand? And how do I keep track of everything, with my horrible sense of direction? (I flipped “east” and “west” more than a dozen times in the first draft of this book.)
I need a map. Here’s my first mockup of Aurdwynn, the wolf land, courtesy of Microsoft Paint!
But if you squint past the eye-pain, you can already see one of my favorite rules in action. Most fantasy maps throw a lot of strange names at you, but they don’t tell you which names are really important to the story, or why you should care. I believe that readers care about people—and if you want to teach them a fact, whether it’s geography or Ducal gossip, you should attach that fact to a person’s voice.
So this map of Aurdwynn includes Baru Cormorant’s handwritten comments!
Why does this matter? Well, it’s one thing to say, “The north of Aurdwynn is cold, and the political stability of the Dukes up there depends on their ability to stockpile food for winter.” That’s a Fact: dry and boring.
But when you see Baru’s notes: clay, landlord problems, probably going to starve—now you’ve learned something about Aurdwynn, but also something about Baru. She foresees big problems. She’s interested in politics and economics. She’s absolutely willing to write people off.
Mercy! Mercy! Let’s move to a later and more attractive version of this map—touched up first by my lovely and surpassingly talented partner, and then by the fine crew at Tor Books.
On Duchy Vultjag she writes, Utterly unimportant—and we instantly know it probably isn’t, and that Baru’s hiding something. Skimming the resources Baru’s noted, we glimpse the shape of her plans: she cares about getting taxes, but she also cares about cavalry, pirates, and, for some reason, Duke Oathsfire’s awful beard. (So it’s not all tactical information, is it? Baru’s let some of her personal feelings drift onto the map. And that teaches us a little more about her. She’s in control of herself, but the control isn’t perfect.)
There are other secrets in the map, the kind of stuff a history nerd might appreciate—the Ducal names trace the patterns of ancient invasion by the Tu Maia and the Stakhieczi, and the surviving influence of the Belthyc natives. Treatymont is the colonial capital of the invading Empire of Masks, Aurdwynn’s newest occupier.
But really, this is for you to discover, if you care. And that’s the secret of great world building: not just building an elaborate world, but attaching that world to characters, making you care about the characters, and letting you choose to follow those characters into the world.
This map is a map of tragedies past, and tragedies yet to come. Baru can look at it and see the flow of money, armies, disease, and weather. She can reach into that flow and alter it, for good or ill.
We live our lives, here in the twenty-first century, hoping that someone has that same power. Hoping that someone up high understands the great machine of the world well enough to fix it.