Primary Exports: Edge, Woke, Sadness
Ooof, this book. I had heard good things about this fantasy novel over the years, and I wish I hadn't. The book has qualities, but it also serious flaws, and I went into the experience with expectations that were way too high. One issue is that the book tries to be A) very dark and B) very woke, but then it fails to back up these attempts with solid writing and world design. In a lighter, looser, happier book I could completely ignore these issues, e.g. in Gideon the Ninth everyone uses swords and no one uses guns, and the author just cheerfully ignores/lampshades this and you're willing to go along with it because sword fights are cooler and more dramatic than gun fights. In this book though the author is trying to say Serious! things about Economics! and Imperialism! and Racism! and LGBTIAQ!, and so I hold him to a higher standard than I would a fun adventure book about swords and sorcery. The standard is raised even higher because the author also wants to make the book really dark, e.g. Peter Watts levels of dark where nothing ever goes right and the bad guys always have perfect luck because I am the author and I have clinical depression so Nyaaaahhhh. And as mentioned, the writing and plotting and world building really aren't good enough to support the weight the author wants to place on them. Some quick examples: there is this Falcresti Empire, it's at an approximately 1800 level of tech, and they have these large over seas colonies, but they don't really have any huge tech advantages over the people they're supposed to be colonizing. E.g. the Falcresti guys have armor and swords, and the people they are oppressing have armor and swords, and it's not really clear how this is supposed to work when the Falcresti are having to ship all their dudes a quarter of the way across the world on sail boats. Historically the British and such could kind of get away with it because they had machine guns while the people they were colonizing had spears, but in this case there doesn't really seem to be the kind of tech differential needed to make a large colonial venture work. This is doubly egregious since the Falcresti looooove messing with their colony's religion and marriage laws, which would just lead to constant and massive rebellions. Then there are smaller issues, like how the Falcresti keep putting 20 year olds in charge of ships and provinces, and how they rely on overly complex plots and battles to go exactly perfectly in every detail, and how no one is actually happy with their job or has any real patriotism or nationalism, and how there isn't any clear command structure, and how shitty masks would be for battlefield command and morale, and how infantry doesn't escape from a double envelopment, and how the army and navy are kept purged and subordinate but are still supposed to be effective fighting forces, and how none of the Falcresti just take a bribe or leave or defect or rebel or just do a shitty or lazy or corrupt job. The entire thing reminded me of this Simone Weil quote, which I can't seem to find any more and so now will mis-remember, that "fascism doesn't work well because no one has the energy for that shit after 30." Like, after a certain age most people just want to mow their lawns, go to bed by 9:00 PM, and not be involved in some continual struggle of the will. And then there are issues with the author's proposed rule by spies, and how quickly that would devolve, and how promoting double agents is the worst idea possible, and blah blah blah. Le Carre I think has a much more realistic take on this same plot-arc in Little Drummer Girl, and on spies and double-agents in general in the rest of his work. That is to say that an agent does not have any natural power base, and a double-agent has even less, since their position puts them completely at the mercy of a small faction of their home government, with little material incentive to redeem the double agent after their work is done. Spoiler, spoiler, there was never any reason for anyone to give Baru any reward for her services, as once she accepted the job she had no leverage over anyone.
Anyway, that's the book. The author isn't unskilled or uncreative, but he needs a different container or vehicle for his work than the one he is trying to use here. Maybe also to get a puppy.
Post Script 1: Oh and I didn't really like the main character.
Post Script 2: I tried out the first 40 pages of the sequel, and it's basically unreadable. It continues on with the Peter Watts style of trying to inflict his malaise on the rest of the world. It's like an endless RPG where good guys can ever only roll a 1.