Last year I reviewed Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice before it swept the major SF awards–including the Hugo, the Nebula, the Golden Tentacle, the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, and the Locus Award, as well as nominations for Phillip K. Dick award, Tiptree Award, and Compton Crook Award. Today marks the release of the second book in the three-part series, this one titled Ancillary Sword. If you haven’t read Ancillary Justice yet, and you don’t want spoilers for that book go read that review and that book instead. I highly recommend. (Also, Carl Slaughter recently interviewed Ann Leckie on Diabolical Plots, go check that out too.)
Still here? For a high level summary of Ancillary Justice, go read the review. At the end of Ancillary Justice, Breq succeeds in bringing out the internal conflict of the many-bodied emperor of the Radchaai empire and starting out-and-out interstellar war, taken into the confidence by one side of Anaander Miaanai while the other one sabotages the interstellar gates to try to keep the news from spreading.
The second book starts with Breq taking the only assignment from Anaander that she would accept–to visit Athoek Station, an important station where Lieutenant Awn’s sister Bosnaaid lives. Although she is only given one ship, Mercy of Kalr, Breq is promoted to the position of Fleet Captain to ensure she has authority over other captains she crosses. Her friend Seivarden is one of her lieutenants on the ship. Breq wishes to go to have the opportunity to make amends to Bosnaaid for the role she played in Awn’s death. Anaander wants Breq to go to make sure that Athoek Station is ready to defend against attack from the other Anaander. But nothing with 3000-year-old Anaander Miaanai is ever simple–Anaander has already shown herself very capable of great trickery, able as she is to bypass security systems and AIs with powerful access codes. Breq knows that Anaander wouldn’t let a powerful person like Breq go without some kind of insurance, but what form will that insurance take?
When they arrive at Athoek Station, there are repeated indications that things are very odd here. Their arrival is met with an attempted attack by the Radch ship Sword of Atagaris. On Athoek Station Breq immediately seeks out the Undergarden, the space under the populated section of the station that doesn’t officially exist. Breq, always sympathetic to the downtrodden, sets out to improve the living conditions on the station as she tries to sort out the mysteries of the system and tries to stabilize everything to prepare for attack from the other Anaander Miaanai.
This book continues one of the cool social details of the last book–universal female genderization. The Radch language doesn’t acknowledge different genders and doesn’t have gendered pronouns, so female pronouns are always used in the narration and any dialog spoken in Radchaai–it’s only when other languages are used when any differentiation is made at all. It’s a really cool effect–even though I know a few particular characters are male, the ever-present female pronouns and the unimportance of distinguishing one sex from the other makes me kind of forget that for those characters. In my head, it really is an all-female cast, even though it technically isn’t. It’s a neat effect.
One thing that I miss from Ancillary Justice is the cool flashback scenes in that book from the point of view of Justice of Toren. The reason I really got interested in that book in the first place was that interesting point of view. I have seen other stories with multiple-bodied people as secondary characters or ones where a person may have more than one body but not simultaneously, but Justice of Toren‘s point of view perceived from all of her bodies simultaneously so those scenes involved her speaking and acting in numerous different places all at once all mixed together in the same scene. It was disorienting at first, but amazingly done. This book doesn’t involve any flashbacks from Breq’s Justice of Toren days, so it’s all in the single-bodied present. It makes the point of view more interesting that Breq has implants that let her perceive the emotions and sensory input of her officers and crew–kind of an in-text justification for an omniscient narrator. It was still pretty cool, but the first book set the bar pretty high on point-of-view coolness and it wasn’t as cool as that.
There was one major plot-point action by Breq that was such poor judgment I found it hard to believe from her character. Breq is often daring, but never unthinking, so I found that major action to be out of the character I’d known so far. I can’t comment further without spoilers, but I’ll be interested to see if other people had the same qualm when I talk to them.
The second novel is stereotypically the low point in a trilogy. It lacks the novelty, the fresh worldbuilding and launch into action of the first book. But neither does it have the series-ending climax and resolution of the third book. Did Ancillary Sword fall into the middle-book slump? Somewhat. Breq is as awesome as ever, and there is some good expansion of worldbuilding started in the previous book. There are some really cool plot points and new information revealed here, but the entirety of this book still feels like just the “rising action” portion of a single book that the third Ancillary Mercy will conclude, and while this book did have its own climax and resolution these were both related to a plot thread that is more of an offshoot of the series’ main plot than an integral part of the main plot. Much of the book is spent, not idle, but waiting for the other shoe to drop. Breq is more than capable of handling the interpersonal and administrative conflict that make up most of the plot. Very late in the book there is even a short section that concisely lists all the unresolved threads that this book built up to–which could serve very nicely as a back cover blurb for the third book. The first book centered around a one-person assassination attempt on the multitudinous emperor of the galactic empire with astronomical odds against success. After that action-packed excitement a capable person given ample authority and asked to organize a defense is not so enthralling, at least until that preparation is put to the test.
If you liked Ancillary Justice, consider this book, and the resolution to the trilogy will be along in the near future to tie everything off. I will be very excited to get my hands on Ancillary Mercy to follow the rest of Breq’s adventures and to find out the how the Anaander Miaanai civil war turns out. Ann Leckie has shown herself more than capable, and I trust that she will enthrall and amaze to round out the trilogy.