READERS PLEASE NOTE: The following is a review of Ancillary Sword, the second book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series. Out of necessity, the review’s plot summary contains big spoilers for book one, Ancillary Justice. If you have not yet read Ancillary Justice and would like to read it spoiler-free, you may prefer to avoid this review of Ancillary Sword and instead read the review of Ancillary Justice. — Janine
Dear Ms. Leckie,
This year, your 2013 debut novel Ancillary Justice won best novel at the BSFA (British Science Fiction Awards), the Arhur C. Clarke Awards, the Nebula Awards, the Locus Awards, and then capped off its amazing year with a win at the Hugos.
Fortunately for me, I read the book before it took all these prizes, and was able to enjoy it without sky-high expectations. I read it and I loved it. When the ARC for its sequel, Ancillary Sword, became available, I eagerly requested it, but knew that the expectation-free reading experience I had with the first book would not be duplicated.
Once a spaceship / artificial intelligence called Justice of Toren and crewed by ancillaries, human bodies inhabited by the ship’s AI, all that remains of Breq, the series’ first person narrator, is now a single ancillary’s body.
Outwardly cool and dispassionate, Breq is driven by fierce emotions she was programmed to feel. Among these is love, which, as readers learned in Ancillary Justice, has the power to devastate her.
For millennia Breq was a servant of the Radch, a galaxy-spanning empire which conquered and annexed many worlds. The love she was made to feel for her officers and the obedience she was programmed to give Anaander Mianaai, ruler of the Radch, came into conflict when Lieutenant Awn, Breq’s favorite officer, stumbled on a secret with the power to shatter Mianaai’s empire.
Like the spaceship Breq once was, Mianaai inhabits thousands of bodies – in this case, all clones of herself. This confers a kind of immortality on Mianaai, and indeed, Mianaai is worshipped by Radchaai citizenry and thought to be infallible. But thousands of years into the expansion of her empire, a secret division formed within Mianaai, splitting her into two factions.
What happened in the wake of Awn’s discovery led to the destruction of Justice of Toren and the deaths of the ship’s human officers as well as her ancillary crew—all but Breq, whom these events freed her of some of her programming, allowing her to plot to kill Mianaai in revenge, or at least, as many of Mianaai’s bodies as she could.
At the end of Ancillary Justice, Breq precipitated an open civil war between the Mianaai factions. One faction destroyed two intersystem gates in the vicinity of Omaugh Palace. The other faction declared Breq human, made her a Radchaai citizen, adopted her as a cousin, elevated her to the rank of Fleet Captain, and gave her command of Mercy of Kalr, an intelligent spaceship much like the one she herself used to be, albeit crewed by humans.
Breq and Seivarden, the one remaining lieutenant who served aboard her when she was Justice of Toren, were tasked by Mianaai with taking Mercy of Kalr, one of few nearby ships capable of generating its own gates, to Athoek Station and ensuring the safety of the citizens of the station and the planet around which it orbits.
Breq doe not trust Mianaai and has not forgiven any part of her for her past actions. She accepts the mission only because she agrees the citizens of Athoek should be protected—and because Awn’s younger sister, Basnaaid Elming, is one of those citizens.
Two things happen at the beginning of Ancillary Sword, before Breq can depart Omaugh Palace. The first is that Skaaiat Awer, another person who loved Awn, warns Breq that Basnaaid is likely to be offended by offers of help—yet even knowing this, Breq plans to give Basnaaid anything it is in her power to give.
The second event is that Mianaai insists Breq accept seventeen year old Lieutenant Tisarwat as an officer aboard Mercy of Kalr. Almost from the first, Breq realizes something is wrong with Tisarwat, who comes across as more experienced and self-possessed than any seventeen year old. Breq is also aware of a terrible tension in Tisarwat.
Breq concludes that Tisarwat is no longer herself, but has been taken over, made into a kind of ancillary. And yet, the horrific practice of creating ancillaries has been outlawed for years, and even when it was legal was not practiced on citizens of the Radch. Who or what could have done this to Tisarwat? And who or what has Tisarwat become as a result?
At Athoek Station, more concerns arise. The destruction of the intersystem gates has left many ships and their passengers stranded there, and some supplies are already limited. Lodging aboard the station is hard to find, but Breq discovers some space in the Undergarden, an unfinished part of the station inhabited by some of the station’s less privileged residents.
These citizens are discriminated against by members of the system’s upper classes and by the captain and crew of Sword of Atagaris, who represent the Radch authorities. Commanded by the Sword of Atagaris’ human captain Hetnys, the ship’s ancillaries sometimes strike the Undergarden’s residents or even fire on them.
When Breq tries to raise these concerns with Captain Hetnys and with the station’s governor, they counter with insistence that “order” must be kept because an attack by the mysterious aliens the Presger may be imminent. Are the lethal Presger closer than appearances indicate, or are these fears baseless and superstitious?
Meanwhile, there is Basnaaid Elming, whom Breq wants desperately to protect. Yet Basnaaid will accept nothing from Breq, though she may in fact be in danger.
These conflicts intersect with one another. No sooner does Breq come up with a solution to one challenge, then another development complicates it. As tireless as Breq seems, as impassive and inhuman as she may at times be, can she rise to these challenges without compromising her justice-seeking—or her safety?
Like its predecessor, Ancillary Sword is a brilliant book, but whereas in Ancillary Justice we saw the Radchaai empire on the level of a macrocosm, in Ancillary Sword the same imperial policies and colonial injustices are viewed through the lens of a microcosm.
If Ancillary Justice spanned decades and a few different planetary systems, Ancillary Sword concerns itself with one system and takes place over only a few weeks. This makes possible deeper and more detailed worldbuilding, and the wonderful development of a complex society comprised of multiple subcultures, each of which has its own traditions and social stratas, as well as its own language and religion.
The people of these various cultures and their concerns feel remarkably real. And though we usually don’t learn their gender—the Radchaai simply refer to every person by the pronoun “she”—gender almost became irrelevant to me as I read about them.
At the center of the story is Breq, who remains an amazing character, able, with her ship’s aid, to see through multiple viewpoints while remaining singular and alone, passionately concerned with righting injustices though capable of moments of blundering and blindness.
Whereas in Ancillary Justice Breq was first a lowly ancillary and then an alien, a stranger, as well as a renegade rebel in opposition to the all-powerful Mianaai, now she has been elevated in rank to a citizen, a fleet captain, and a Mianaai herself, and many of the same over-privileged people who once would have scorned her now curry her favor.
This vantage point allows for a top down view of Athoek’s society, while side characters provide glimpses into its lower levels, making the worldbuilding intricate, detailed and well-developed.
There is a downside, though, which is that Breq is no longer an easy-to-root-for underdog. While I still love her, there were times I felt that in attempting to help solve the problems of those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, she was not at all far from the role of benevlolent oppressor. Thankfully—very thankfully—those characters she tried to aid were all too aware of her privilege, and treated her to their anger, which helped prevent her character from slipping too far down that slope.
I also found it disturbing that with her ship’s assistance, Breq saw her crew’s actions and emotions. Since it was part of Radchaai military culture, the crew was aware Breq could see their actions and accepted that, but most did not know she was an ancillary and could not realize she had their bioreadings and therefore insight into their emotions too. Breq herself did not seem conscious of that as a violation. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why, but one possible explanation lies in Breq’s past as an ancillary-crewed ship and in her unreliability as a narrator.
Perhaps because Breq is now in a power position, justice is portrayed with greater nuance here than it was in the prequel. Social justice remains the theme of the series and Breq’s uppermost goal, but we see not only many of the wrongs inherent in colonialism but also how tricky it can be to navigate righting some of these wrongs without creating more complications.
This a middle-of-the-series book and as such its pacing is slower, particularly in the third quarter. Some of the major threads are also left loose-ended and it will be interesting to see if the Imperial Radch series can be wrapped up in one more book or if more installments will be added.
One thing I missed seeing more of in this installment was Seivarden and Breq’s relationship with her. This was such a significant thread in Ancillary Justice that I was surprised to see it back-burnered here, but there was compensation in the introduction and development of Tisarwat and of Breq’s relationship with her, which were deeply satisfying.
Through the character of Tisarwat, we experience the horror of the ancillary-making process almost from the inside out. Tisarwat can never again be what she once was, but nor can Breq. And even knowing how horrific, how unjust, how great a wrong it is to make ancillaries, Breq cannot help but miss the days she had them. They were an extension of her self, and now, no matter how loyal her crew may be, that self is essentially alone, part-dead, yet her life continues.
Stripped of its galaxy-wide reach, its trappings of quest-for-revenge story and its David vs. Goliath element; stripped too, of its notion of justice as something as, in Breq’s own words, as simple as assigning guilt to the guilty, Breq’s tale becomes less crowd-pleasing, but even more complex, layered and thought provoking.
If Breq, now no longer the underdog nor quite as grief-stricken as she was in the first book, isn’t quite as loveable here, she remains, in her dogged insistence on righting what wrongs she can right, indomitable and heroic. B+/A-