I just can't stop Baru Cormorant.
If you give someone like Baru one inch, she'll take over your whole mile and convert you to metric. She refuses to be contained. She seizes on the smallest advantage and takes it up as a weapon.
And she beat me.
Back in 2011, just after my 22nd birthday, I wrote a short story about Baru, grandmaster manipulator, renegade accountant, imperial operative, lover and revolutionary. It was my very first professional sale! I was so proud.
I had all these other plans. I joined a PhD program in social psychology, where I planned to study racial bias in police shootings. Then I got a gig at Bungie Studios writing lore and flavor for Destiny — a childhood dream job, since I loved their games so much.
And yet here I am, four years and more than a dozen short stories later, out of grad school, away from Bungie, still writing about Baru. She refused to be contained in a short story. She maneuvered her way out and somehow, somehow, right in the middle of my first year of grad school, she convinced me that I needed to write a novel about her!
Who is Baru? Where did she come from?
A large part of her came from conversations. Online debate about who was 'allowed' to be the protagonist of an epic fantasy story — because, some argued, a woman or a person of color or a queer person (or someone who, like Baru, was all three) would face 'too much oppression to be interesting'. I knew Baru would spit in the face of those arguments. Or, I suppose, hire someone else to stab them in the back.
Part of her came from that ancient Internet favorite, the Evil Overlord List. I wanted to write a heroine who got to do all the fun stuff — building fortresses, organizing conspiracies, scheming and manipulating to change the world! We all love a good overlord scheme. Why not put it at the center of the story?
A piece of Baru, and so much of Baru's foe, the cunning Empire of Masks, came from my work in psychology. I learned that the human mind is a complicated, self-deceptive, self-justifying machine. It slants and skews with hidden biases. What if a conquering empire decided to enslave its subjects not in body, but in mind?
(Isn't that the most frightening kind of control? They'll let you do anything, but they know you'll choose to obey.)
Baru's a master of structural manipulation. She plays economies, armies, and politics with a savant's grace. But her discipline and self-confidence make her vulnerable to so many blind spots. She doesn't take care of herself. She forgets that she's surrounded by other players, all with their own inner lives, their own hopes and dreams. She's afraid of love.
I think Baru stays with me because her battle is a part of all our lives.
We're all alone inside our skulls, right? We have no way to ever know what someone else is really thinking. But we need other people, we need them so much, we have to believe in their love and in their belief in us. So we build little models of them in our heads, tiny spouses, tiny friends, tiny family, and we guess. We say, ah, the model loves me. I trust the real article loves me too!
When we get it wrong, it's heartbreaking. We love someone we shouldn't, or we leave someone who needs us. We suffer hurt, or, worse, we inflict it.
Baru's long, quiet war depends on manipulation and subtlety. In order to liberate her homeland, she has to pretend to be someone she's not, win the trust of those around her, and wear a thousand masks. If she gets it wrong, she dies. And so does that hope of liberation.
But she has to cling to the belief, deep down, that trust is possible. That there's more to life than masks and cunning.
That's the world Baru's fighting for. The world we all hope for. Maybe that's why I can't stop her.
Read an excerpt from the book: http://extracts.panmacmillan.com/extract?isbn=9781447281177
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- Published in Book News