THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson
A young and brilliant mathematician is sent to oversee a nation on the outskirts of the Empire of Masks as Imperial Accountant, as well as sniff out plots of treachery.
At first blush, it may seem like the “traitor” part of the title tips Dickinson’s hand too much, but the beauty of this book is that the reader never knows who Baru will betray at any stage of the book. Will she turn her back on the Masquerade and forfeit her dreams of rescuing her island nation Taranoke from its rule? Or is the northern country of Aurdwynn one more stepping stone on her journey to power? While the bank plots and tactical decisions may seem daunting, they are always carefully explained and made easy to follow, and Baru’s ruthlessness and its toll on her make her and especially compelling character. Baru’s sexuality is never paraded or made light of; instead it reads like a weapon, a double-edged blade that could be her downfall but is also her greatest solace as she destroys the world around her to achieve her goals.
A long read, but an immensely good one: it digs deep into ruthlessness, revenge, and all the cold calculation of having a goal more important than anything, while also understanding exactly the prices that must be paid and their toll on the human psyche.
A GATHERING OF SHADOWS by V. E. Schwab
After the triumph that was A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, a book I re-read and savored multiple times and pressed eagerly on friends, Schwab’s latest fell flat.
It starts out strong with our characters bringing us back into what they’ve been doing since we left them and preparing for the Essen Tasch, the Element Games, a tournament of skill for magicians. With so much of the focus on plots and plans at the games, it is surprising that the Games themselves don’t start until around 2/3 through the book, making the bulk of this sequel about preparation and behind the scenes machinations. While I would have normally been on board, I was just bored here: unlike the first book, when everyone is forced to make terrible, tough, and compelling choices, it’s hard to feel anyone’s suffering in AGOS: Kell mopes, Lila reminisces, and Rhy runs. Even the tournament’s magic feels stale: I previously hadn’t noticed that Avatar: The Last Airbender had been such a heavy influence, but with nothing more elaborate than the usual four elements as a base for magic, it felt stifling and unoriginal. Rhys’ love interest disappointed me because I was hoping seeds sown in the first book would come to fruit. The sequel ends on a cliffhanger without feeling like anything really happened besides character development: I would have liked to see more of the explosiveness of the first book rather than shocking us and leaving very little resolved.
Recommended for fans of the series, but a lot will be riding on the third and final book to prove itself and make me not recommend A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC as a standalone.