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REVIEW:  Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

REVIEW: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

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.

Ancillary-SwordFortunately 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-

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

REVIEW: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Dear Ms. Leckie,

I finished reading your debut novel, Ancillary Justice, about a week ago and I am still in awe of just how good it is. I suspect I will remain in awe for a long time.

AncillaryJustice

I first came across Ancillary Justice, the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, via this review at The Book Smugglers, where Ana and Thea both loved it. It sounded interesting and different, and I was intrigued, but since I don’t read much science fiction, I wasn’t sure it was for me.

Then a reader compared it to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is not only one of the best regarded science fiction novels of all time but a book I loved.

This was high praise and at that point, I decided I had to read Ancillary Justice, science fiction or not. I am happy to say that the book proved to be hypnotically absorbing, as well as fascinating and rewarding, without making me cry at the end the way The Left Hand of Darkness did.

Ancillary Justice has a dual timeline and is narrated in first person by Breq, an artificial intelligence in a human body who, in order to execute her objective, must pass for fully human.

Breq has suffered great losses and she is therefore willing to go to great lengths to attain justice, or is it revenge? Just exactly what it is she has lost and how that loss came about remains shrouded in mystery for well over half the novel.

The book opens in the story’s present with Breq’s discovery of a naked, blood-spattered body lying in the snow.

Incredibly, though she is on “the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it is possible to be,” Breq recognizes the person in the snow. The discovery is doubly surprising because Breq believed Lieutenant Seivarden Vendaai to have died a thousand years earlier.

Breq, we soon discover, once inhabited the mind of a huge, thousands-of-years-old spaceship, as well as the minds of hundreds of reanimated human bodies turned soldiers, called ancillaries, who crewed that ship under fully human officers.

In all her forms Breq was programmed to obey those human officers when she was under their command, regardless of how they treated her. Back then, Seivarden was an arrogant lieutenant of Breq’s, and not one Breq was particularly fond of.

As readers may gather from this, Breq’s spaceship-self, the troop carrier Justice of Toren, was programmed to feel emotion (the explanation for why makes a lot of sense). And while outwardly Breq’s actions in the present are guided by cool intellect, they are also driven by passionate convictions born of that emotion.

Breq discovers that Lieutenant Seivaden is still breathing, and quickly discerns how “she” — Breq identifies Seivarden as male early on in the novel, but applies the female pronoun to him as well as to everyone else, because her first language, the same one used in the galaxy-spanning Radchaai Empire, does not recognize gender — ended up naked and bloody, lying face down in the snow. A run-in with locals at a tavern resulted in that misfortune.

But Breq has “urgent business” on this frozen, empire-forsaken planet known as Nilt, and to be saddled with Seivarden is the last thing she needs. Even so, Breq purchases a hypothermia kit and patches up her new companion.

It turns out that Seivarden not only fails to recognize Breq as a part of the ship s/he once served aboard but that — as the only survivor of another ship s/he had transferred to after serving on Justice of Toren, preserved a thousand years through cryogenics and thawed recently, only to realize that the galaxy is no longer a familiar place — s/he is sullen, uncooperative, and addicted to a drug called kef.

The addiction is bad news, since Breq’s quest on Nilt is a dangerous one, and Seivarden, who has no desire to live, is now an unknown quantity and perhaps a danger to that mission.

In the second chapter, we switch to a storyline set in Breq’s past. Nineteen years earlier, long after Seivarden’s transfer away, when Breq was Justice of Toren and orbiting a planet, her consciousness was nearly omniscient—able to see and perceive many things taking place not only on board herself, but also through the eyes and ears of her ancillaries on the planet below.

Breq’s destiny was to be altered irrevocably as a result of a discovery made in the planet Shis’urna’s hot, humid, and impoverished city of Ors. Justice of Toren and other ships like her were part of the Radchaai empire, and Shis’urna a Radchaai colony.

Colonization is an ugly process; in this case, initially involving an “annexation” in which those who rebelled against the empire were killed or made into ancillaries against their wills, a process which destroyed their minds just as effectively.

A later stage, one now being approached, comes when the Radchaai’s leader, Anaander Mianaai, also known as the Lord of the Radch, converts the conquered people into Radchaai by recognizing them as human for the first time and declaring them so.

When an attempt is made by the empire to recall the most senior officer on Ors, Lieutenant Awn, back to Justice of Toren, and replace the ship’s unit of ancillaries on the planet with human soldiers, the head priest of Ors’ Temple of Ikkt tries to intervene.

Justice of Toren’s ancillary One Esk assists Lieutenant Awn on the planet’s surface, and is therefore present for the conversation between Awn and the head priest in which this exchange between the clergy member and One Esk takes place:

“It’s strange. You hear stories about ancillaries, and it seems like the most awful thing, the most viscerally appalling thing the Radchaai have done. Garsedd—well, yes, Garsedd, but that was a thousand years ago. This—to invade and take, what, half the adult population? And turn them into walking corpses, slaved to your ships’ AIs. Turned against their own people. If you’d asked me before you… annexed us, I‘d have said it was a fate worse than death.” She turned to me. “Is it?”

“None of my bodies is dead, Divine,” I said. “And your estimate of the typical percentage of annexed populations who were made into ancillaries is excessive.”

“You used to horrify me,” said the head priest to me. “The very thought of you near was terrifying, your dead faces, those expressionless voices. But today I am more horrified at the thought of a unit of living human beings who serve voluntarily. Because I don’t think I could trust them.”

The novel switches back to the present day, where, no longer a spaceship but only a single ancillary, Breq rents a flier and, on her way to an even more remote part of Nilt’s frozen landscape, with Seivarden in tow, discovers that the flier’s fuel tank has been tampered with, made to appear fuller than it actually is.

Fast running out of fuel, Breq must decide whether the seller of the flier is planning to murder her and Seivarden or allow cold and hunger to kill them, whether to wait for the ambush or walk sixty kilometers to her mysterious destination.

When we return to the past storyline, one of the poorer residents of Ors, who has been fishing in prohibited waters for food, comes to Lieutenant Awn to report an unusual discovery: a cache of illegal guns stashed in that lake. But when Lieutenant Awn sends One Esk to investigate, One Esk identifies the weapons’ origin as other than the one she had supposed. Their source is unusual and anomalous, enough so to present a greater danger to Ors than she or Awn had previously supposed.

How did the guns find their way to a place they should not be? Why have they been hidden in the lake and what are they for? How does the discovery of the guns lead Breq to risk her life nineteen years later? What has she come to Nilt in pursuit of, and will she be able to attain the justice she wants so badly?

Ancillary Justice is an amazing novel, one that works, and works beautifully, on multiple levels. Not only does it explore themes like identity, imperialism and gender, but it also investigates loyalty, loss, and justice.

It’s a fascinating novel because the narrator is both a single individual and (in the flashback storyline) part of a larger collective that acts as one. Her viewpoint is therefore both singular and multiple, unreliable and limited in the present, and almost omniscient in the past. What’s more the latter effect is pulled off so well it’s both pleasurable to read and impressive.

But the contradictions in Breq/Justice of Toren/One Esk don’t end there. She is an artificial intelligence rather than human, and yet she has many human qualities and is capable of emotion — even great emotion.

As someone who is subject to being programmed as well as someone capable of making choices, Breq has free will yet she doesn’t have it. As someone who for centuries enforced the Radchaai empire’s rule over its colonies, she is undoubtedly complicit in this injustice, and yet she cares about justice.

The limits placed on her choices by her programming, and the second class treatment she receives from Radchaai make her oppressed as well as an oppressor. The human body she inhabits makes her both dead and alive.

And then there’s the question of gender. Breq refers to herself as female, but she refers to everyone as female, whether or not they actually are. Yet whether she’s female, male, or something else ceased to matter to me as I fell headlong into this novel, riveted by Breq’s POV.

It wasn’t just the book’s complexity and its narrator’s depth that I loved, but also the nuanced relationships Breq develops with the compelling secondary characters, relationships that are tested in almost untenable ways.

One Esk’s loyalty to Lieutenant Awn is based on respect, an emotion Breq doesn’t feel for Seivarden, but Breq’s grudging rescue of the latter at the beginning of the novel leads to some wonderful developments later on.

The worldbuilding was equally terrific. This is one of those books which gives the sense that the author knows far more about the world than could be fit inside the pages, but the information, whether techonological or sociological, is conveyed with an economy of words and a few carefully chosen but telling details — and without resorting to infodumps.

The language is clean and clear but didn’t initially strike me as special. It was only as the story unfolded that Breq’s words gathered power, and when the key flashback in this space opera/psychological thriller finally arrived and the events that drove present-day Breq were revealed, I was blown away by the impact of the simple sentences.

With regard to flaws, I was so drawn into this story that the only one I can name is that for Breq to stumble on Seivarden on Nilt is an unlikely coincidence– but the Radchaai’s religious belief is that there are no such things as coincidences, so I wonder if by the time this trilogy is complete, Seivarden’s presence in the same place where Breq had to begin her quest will have been used in interesting ways beyond what’s been revealed thus far.

The homage to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is evident– like the Le Guin this novel begins in a wintry landscape, like the Le Guin it is partly about betrayal and loyalty and partly about cultural and sociological dilemmas, and like the Le Guin it poses the fascinating question of whether it is our gender or our shared humanity that really matters.

But Ancillary Justice is its own original novel as well, and like the best science fiction, it also asks what it means to be human.

It’s hard to communicate the charms of this novel because at first glance the narrator isn’t warm and fuzzy, and neither is the world. Yet they both came to matter to me deeply. I think that anyone who enjoys SF, and and maybe even some readers who, like me, rarely read it, might want to pick up this novel. For me, it was totally worth it. A.

Sincerely,

Janine

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