Book Review: Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie)

Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Science Fiction – #2 of 3, Imperial Radch

“When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?” 

After the events of Ancillary Justice, Breq has a ship and crew at her disposal, and is en route to the system of Athoek, one of many places “civilized” by the expansionist Radch Empire. Her goal is to bring stability to the system, a goal that is complicated by a repressive and stratified class system, the Radch Empire being on the brink of civil war, and the unnerving presence of a translator from the alien race the Presger – the only people to have created a weapon capable of destroying Radch ships.

I recently started my first reread of Ancillary Justice (let’s shorten it to Justice, from hereon out), the first book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy about imperialism and fragmented identity and loss. So far I still haven’t found a single thing about it I don’t absolutely adore. That is a lot to live up to, and unlike Justice  I did have some critical thoughts about sequel Ancillary Sword (Sword, from hereon out).  But that said, I loved every second of my reading experience with Sword, can’t wait to reread it, and overall feel like it more than met my incredibly high expectations.

This turned out to be a long review, so I’ve broken it into two parts:

The slightly less good

The themes in Justice were not precisely subtle; commentary on colonialism and imperialism was a strong, pervasive theme in the book. But said commentary never came across as heavy-handed, whereas I think it did from time to time in Sword. In Justice, One Esk is a witness to colonialism and imperialism in Ors. Regarded as little more than a piece of equipment, she is virtually invisible to both the Radch occupiers and the Orsian citizens, and so we get to watch interactions in the annexed city as a passive observer. In a similar setting in Sword, Breq is giving the orders and making the decisions.  This is really fun, and I loved super-effective Breq having no time for anyone’s nonsense and getting things done, but it also makes the social commentary much more obvious.

The other thing missing from Sword is the sense of urgency that propels the narrative in Justice. Justice is a mystery and a revenge story, with more action and excitement. Curiosity and the thrill of discovery drive the story, as we gradually learn more about what brought Breq to this point, and a wonderful sense of momentum builds to the dual climaxes in each timeline. Sword is a more intimate and unconventional story. I inhaled it every bit as fast and with as much enthusiasm as Justice, but I missed the epic and awe-inspiring scope of its predecessor.

Both of these complaints only exist as points of comparison to Ancillary Justice, though, and they are both “complaints” that might actually be positives, depending on what you are looking for. I preferred Justice for its exhilaration and breadth; my husband preferred Sword for its intimacy and more direct political and social commentary. The very thing I just complained about is what elevates the book for him, because I just asked what he loves most about Sword and he says:

“I like that it resisted the temptation to try to be enormous and epic, and instead scaled back to a more personal story, set in a single place… but you still learn about what is happening on a larger scale, because that single place is a microcosm for what is going on galactically. You get a sense of what is going on in Radch space all over by looking at one place.”

The really, extremely, amazingly good

The concepts of identity and self, already so fantastically explored in Justice, get 100% even more interesting in Sword. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could delve deeply into questions of what identity means and how it is shaped with every single character introduced, from the Presger translator Dlique to Breq’s fellow spaceship Sword of Atagaris. And without getting into even early book spoilers, Breq’s new crewmember Lieutenant Tisarwat represents the pinnacle of these fascinating questions. I love – LOVE – what her character brings to the table.

I also love that when she arrives in a new system, Breq echoes the behaviour of her hero Lieutenant Awn by trying to build her support from the ground up, starting with the marginalized classes. Awn’s presence can be felt throughout the book as Breq honours what she was trying to accomplish in Ors. Justice and Sword are two very different books, and Breq has very different goals in them. Lieutenant Awn is what binds them together—they are both about Breq processing and reacting to her loss.

Two books in, Breq might be my favourite first-person narrator ever, and not just because she is the most badass ethnomusicologist of all time (though that doesn’t hurt). She is incredibly observant when it comes to those around her, probably because as an ancillary she is used to constantly attending to the needs of others. She rarely thinks about herself, and in spite of this lack of self-interest we learn a great deal about her. For example, she observes the crew interacting with an alien detachment, and plots ways to encourage camaraderie; the way she thinks about her crew emphasizes her separateness from them. Breq spends her time pretending at human expressiveness, all the while she is surrounded by soldiers striving to be more like stoic, emotionless ancillaries. The irony makes Breq’s isolation apparent, without ever having her complain or spell it out for the reader.

So in short: Ancillary Sword is an enormously fun, highly political, and very intelligent book, even if not quite as mind-melting as Justice for me (let’s be realistic: most of the books I’ve ever read are less mind-melting than Ancillary Justice. That’s a high bar). I am a huge fan of Leckie’s handling of character and theme—I could write essays worth of material on these books. I am very impressed with the way the series is progressing, and I’m ridiculously excited to see how it all ends in Ancillary Mercy.

Is it October yet??????? ???????!!

Related: Awesome things about Ancillary Sword: a point-form list

Recommended for:

  • Everyone who read Ancillary Justice

Not recommended for:

  • People who haven’t read Ancillary Justice. What are you waiting for, go read it!

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