The following review of Ancillary Sword contains spoilers for those who have not yet read the initial volume in the “Imperial Radch Trilogy”, Ancillary Justice.
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In 2013, Ann Leckie debuted her first novel, Ancillary Justice; other than a handful of short stories, it was the first thing she had ever published. A few months later, Ancillary Justice had won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award, BSFA Award, Locus Award, Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award. Not bad for a debut.
Almost a year to the day later, a sequel to Ancillary Justice was published. This second book, Ancillary Sword, continues the story of Breq, the sole surviving ancillary from the lost starship Justice of Toren. (Ancillaries are “corpse soldiers” imbued with interlinked artificial intelligence, no longer individual sentient beings but integrated units who identify strongly as a whole.) While the schism of Lord Anaander Mianaai that concluded the first novel is still in play, that conflict initiates the action in Ancillary Sword rather than drives it.
The beginning of Ancillary Sword has Breq, who has been adopted by the Lord of the Radch and given the Mianaai surname (more a political move than a sentimental one), appointed as Fleet Captain and given command of the diplomatic warship Mercy of Kalr. The ship has been charged with protecting the remote Athoek system; rumors of the empire’s conflict has reached Athoek Station as interstellar travel has been suspended, but news about the rupture between the aspects of Anaander Mianaai appears to still be contained.
Breq must act as diplomatic advisor and empire strong arm while discerning the underlying reasons for Mercy of Kalr to be deployed to this particular station, this particular system, as well as stay vigilant for evidence of manipulation by other “selves” of the divided Emperor. Breq is uniquely qualified for this position since she, as an ancillary, can link with her ship as well as understand the other managing systems on other ships and even in the station itself. This allows her to gather information from many sources and from preferential angles, even as she is able to step outside of the normal pull of human pride and ambition. That no one, save for a few members of her crew, knows she is an ancillary is a tactical advantage.
In Ancillary Sword, author Leckie keeps much of what was so compelling in Ancillary Justice: a complex story line, a unique viewpoint, characters that are both foreign and highly recognizable, an intriguing social matrix and a disorienting blurring of gender that more than anything else gives us a sense of being slightly off kilter. But the groundwork that was laid in Ancillary Justice allows for a deeper look into Breq herself.
Rather than being part of a larger story as it unfolds, we now see Breq as the hinge point of a very local story that nevertheless has galactic significance swirling around it. In Ancillary Justice we had a very focused, almost mechanical hero whose sense of justice drove the core of her actions, yet she crawled around in events much bigger than herself so as to be positioned in a place where she could, singularly, effect change. In Ancillary Sword, Breq is not riding events, she’s spinning them, and spinning them in a way and for a resolution that supports the objectives of Anaander Mianaai (one of them, at least) but by means that are unlooked for and unexpected.
It’s brilliant, and very engaging.
Breq is one cool heroine (or hero? gender identify and pronouns are still very ambiguous in this universe, and the default is to the feminine, even when it becomes obvious that the individual in question is male), who sees everything in a dispassionate, calculating way yet who nevertheless is fair, compassionate and even at times, almost sentimental. Ms. Leckie has crafted such a believable character out of a being who began as a human but was wrenched away from her humanity to become part of a collective mind that existed for thousands of years, obedient and compliant, until her duties caused such a conflict of consciousness that she spent hundreds of years plotting and carrying out not revenge, but justice.
Now she serves again, but this time in autonomy and with authority, yet able to glimpse and therefore utilize the knowledge of the inner workings of all the different and sometimes discrepant systems that surround her. She is a stickler for the law, procedure and protocol, but also respects cultural traditions and grasps the power of social trends – compliances which often put her at odds with the station’s governmental and socioeconomic hierarchies. She is distrusted by the commoner because of her position and her emotional detachment, and yet she is their strongest champion, having spent thousands of years at the base of society and uniquely understanding what it is to exist without acknowledgement of self (although she alone understands that).
Reading the story is almost like watching a chess match, or watching a chess master taken on numerous opponents, some friendly and some out for blood. Breq has to balance her own actions – which never rebel against established protocol – against potential impending outcomes which play out on multiple stages. She cares not if her actions enrage in one corner and ingratiate her in another; she embraces being polarizing for that reveals much in how her opponents move against or with her. And she never, ever loses her cool; even when she does lose her temper, it’s done for calculated effect and carefully controlled.
One would think that with such a cool, cerebral heroine that not much could happen – but that’s not the case. There are assassinations and assassination attempts, environmental disaster, espionage, revolution, betrayal and slave uprisings. There is political saber rattling, affluent snobbery, plenty of chicanery, and even some youthful infatuations. But the action is just the top layer of the book, and author Leckie is so creative in taking the reader to a deeper level, where the real games are played. Luckily we get to see it from the angle of the consummate master of the game.
Bottom line – if you’ve read Ancillary Justice but haven’t picked up Ancillary Sword yet, do so, right away. If you haven’t read either, then get crackin’! They are, guaranteed, unlike any other science fiction or fantasy that you have read thus far, well worth the read. Read them slowly, enjoy how they keep unfolding your mind, letting this world and these situations and this central character wash over you. Both books are well worth the accolades thrown their way – those they have already garnered and those yet to come.