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May 15

Book Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

What’s It About

Newly appointed Captain Breq – you may know her from the multi-award winning novel Ancillary Justice­ ­­– has been given a warship, the Mercy of Kalr, and ordered by Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch – or at least the part of her personality that opposes expansion – to go forth and protect the Athoek system from insurgents and rebels who support the expansionist side of Anaander’s personality.

Representative Paragraph

Even taken out of its context, this is a powerful moment:

‘Oh!” cried Queter, at the frayed edge of her patience finally. “You [Breq] are the just one, the kind one, are you? But you’re no different from the daughter of the house.” She lapsed, there, into Radchaai. “All of you! You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilization. And what is civilization, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?”

“I won’t argue,” I said. “What you say is true.”

Should I Read It?

Yes.  However, if you’re expecting the intensity and drama of the first novel than you may be disappointed.

James Bradley, on this episode of the Coode Street Podcast, completely stole my thunder when he said (and I am paraphrasing) that Ancillary Sword is a beautifully written novel that really digs deep into issues of power, identity and colonialism but fails miserably when it comes to telling a story.*

Or, in other words – writing good, themes great, plot not so much.

The meandering narrative, a stark contrast from the pacing and momentum of the previous novel, did mean that for the most part I failed to engage with Ancillary Sword.  And yet, I appreciated the way that Leckie – through Breq – shines a light on the cultural colonialism and dis-empowerment that underpins Space Opera and its benevolent galactic and star-spanning Empires.

Commentary

Unless you’ve hidden under a genre rock you’ll be aware of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.  In 2014 the book featured on nine shortlists – ranging from the Kitschies to the Clarke – and took home at least five trophies, including the Hugos and the Nebulas.  It was the book you had to read if you wanted to seem cool and relevant at dinner parties and science fiction conventions.  And for the most part the novel justified all the buzz, nominations and awards it received.  Ancillary Justice isn’t a perfect book – some of the prose, especially in the beginning is a bit clunky – but it’s a smart Space Opera that has something interesting to say about power, about identity about gender and about colonialism.

In among all the important thematic crunchiness what I really appreciated about Ancillary Justice was how the plot slowly, but steadily, built-in momentum.  First there’s the revelation that our protagonist, Breq, was once a component of a larger network that formed the AI of a massive starship Justice of Toren.  And then we’re told that Justice of Toren was forced by the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, to kill the ship’s Captain for disobeying an order.  Just to top things off, it then becomes clear that the Lord of the Radch has her own problems.  Over the years the thousands of clones and ancillaries that form her personality have split between those who want to continue expansion and those who feel it’s time to consolidate the Empire and stop conquering other worlds.  And this existential schism is sending the Imperial Radch into a civil war.

Ancillary Justice ends with a number of these plates spinning and the sense that all out war between the two sides of Anaander Mianaai is imminent.  Therefore, whether rightly or wrongly, I had the expectation that Ancillary Sword – especially with such an aggressive title – would up the ante, would provide us with an Empire on the verge of shaking apart with Breq caught in the middle of it all.  And yet while the novel begins only a few moments after the ending of Ancillary Justice, Anaander Mianaai only appears briefly.  She sticks around long enough to make Breq a Captain, gives her a warship and then quickly bundles her off to the most boring part of the galaxy, where the civil war on Radch is barely a rumour.  Suddenly all the lovely momentum and dramatic tension of the first novel is replaced with the dull internal politics of Athoek and its orbiting station.

I understand Leckie’s desire (as she remarks in a recent interview with Joel Cunningham) not to write the same novel twice.  And I appreciate the boldness and ambition of deliberately taking the foot off the pedal and instead putting issues of politics, power and suppression ahead of a thrill-a-minute plot.  But Ancillary Sword is a book where very little happens for long stretches of the narrative.  There are suggestions of drama.  The ongoing question of what might be behind the ghost gate (we don’t get an answer) the death of Translator Dlique (the novel’s most interesting and lively character, killed off within a chapter of appearing) and the possibility that news of the schism might have reached the Athoek sector.  But between these questions and brief moments of action there is a distinct lack of urgency.  Or to quote Seivarden, there’s “frantic action, then months or even years waiting for something to happen.”

Part of the problem is that I cared very little about the internal politics that drives Athoek Station and the planet below.  A good chunk of the story is devoted to the machinations of Citizen Fosyf – a rich landowner who supplies tea to the Radch – and her daughter Raughd, a spoiled brat with violent inclinations.  Fosyf’s power play to get on Breq’s good side, coupled with Raughd’s attempt to bed the Captain, are dull and predictable, mostly because it seems so insignificant compared to the greater issues around Anaander Mianaai and her split personality.  The maneuvering of Fosyf and Raughd should be a footnote to the novel not its main focus.

While the overall plot failed to engage me, the novel’s well articulated themes alleviated the boredom.  For Leckie this is the novel where Breq is truly exposed to the insidious aspects of expanding an Empire.  On arriving at Athoek Station she quickly discovers an underclass living in the bowels of the station.  Breq, possibly naïvely, tries to engage with the issues the underclass face, but her position and privilege prove to be a sore point.

The person in front of her continued, “Now when a rich fleet captain wants rooms, suddenly you care how things are in the Undergarden. And we’re cut off from any way to appeal to the palace. Where are we supposed to go, when you kick us out of here? The Xhai won’t live by us. Why do you think we’re here?… Did you expect us to be grateful? This isn’t about us. You didn’t even take a moment to stop and ask what we wanted. So what were you planning to do with us? Reeducate us all? Kill us? Make us into ancillaries?”

When Breq visits Fosyf’s plantation on Athoek – to mourn the loss of Translator Dlique – and sees how the locals are treated like slaves, she tries to provide what help she can.  This lead to the passionate speech from Queter that I quote above and this exchange:

[Breq] “I didn’t cause this, Queter. And I can’t fix every injustice I find, no matter how much I’d like to.”

“No, of course you can’t.” Her contempt was acid. “You can only fix the ones that really inconvenience you.” She turned, and began walking again. If I were given to swearing, I would have sworn now.

“How old is your brother?”

“Sixteen,” she said. The sarcasm returned to her voice. “You could rescue him from this terrible place and bring him to real civilization.”

“Queter, I only have my ship and some temporary quarters on Athoek Station. I have soldiers, and they see to my needs and even make my tea, but I don’t have a retinue. And your idea about the flowers is charming, but it would make a terrible mess. I don’t have a place in my household for your brother. But I will ask him if he wants to leave here, and if he does, I’ll do my best for him.”

“You won’t.” She didn’t turn as she spoke, just continued walking. “Do you even know,” she said, and I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was about to cry, “can you even imagine what it’s like to know that nothing you can do will make any difference? That nothing you can do will protect the people you love? That anything you could possibly ever do is less than worthless?” I could. “And yet you do it anyway.”

And right here is the heart and soul of the novel.  If there’s one thing Ann Leckie has successfully achieved in relation to how we engage with Space Opera it’s how she has drawn our attention to the cultural and social suppression that lies at the heart of all those space battles and laser guns we adored as a kid. With passion and anger Ancillary Sword exposes to both Breq and the reader the pain and suffering that underpins those glittering galactic empires.

And yet, the thematic strength of Ancillary Sword isn’t enough to make me want to read the next book in the series.  I’m certain I will, it’s likely to be hoovered up in next years award shortlists, but it’s not a novel that I’m anticipating. And even if this checklist of the challenges that face Breq and her crew does sound like a great set up for a novel —

‘An enemy warship on the other side of the Ghost Gate, half of the Lord of the Radch maybe about to attack, and the Presger likely to show up demanding to know what we’ve done with their translator. Is that all, or is there more?’

— I just wish it had been the set-up for this one.

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* James says it better in the podcast.

2 comments

3 pings

  1. Chris

    Shame on you. It’s a stunning book, although I take your point about it being a touch anti-climatic after AJ. 🙂

  2. Mark

    I agree with the review completely. After the taut, gripping experience of Justice, Sword was a bit of a let down. It also felt like liberal/progressive wish fulfilment at times, with Breq the all-powerful multicultural Mary Sue. I don’t object at all to the politics, and it’s a needed corrective to much science fiction, but I felt a little pandered to.

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