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.
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-
This has been such an anticipated read for me that I’m almost afraid to start it. I bought it, but it’s still sitting on my Kindle.
@JewelCourt: Start it, start it! For one thing, it is so worth reading, and for another, I need someone to discuss it with!
I started reading this as soon as it downloaded yesterday morning, but then set it aside for the weekend when I could devote quality reading time to it. But it killed me to wait because even the small portion I read was beautiful (the selection of the ship’s dishes!). I am sorry to hear that the relationship with Seivarden was not more fully explored here–there was such tantalizing promise in Justice–but hope that will occur in the 3rd book.
I CANNOT WAIT TO READ THIS! I absolutely loved Ancillary Justice and will hopefully devour this over the weekend.
@Susan: The Breq/Seivarden dynamic is explored more, just not as much as I was expecting. I was really invested in Seivarden from book one, so I wanted to see more of her (him?). Seivarden does have one really terrific moment in this book, though.
@shuzluva: Oh wow, I had no idea you read Ancillary Justice! I’m so glad you’re also a big fan! It seems like there are readers for that book who love love love it, and readers who don’t get the appeal. I’m in the first category and I’m always glad when I come across another romance reader who loves it.
ETA to everyone: Please come back and let me know what you thought!
I literally just finished this book. I didn’t love as much as the first, which I read pre-hugo but post hype, but it did seem to avoid most of the middle book pitfalls trilogies fall into, so I’m happy.
It did still have one issue that I had with the first one, which is the narrative’s tendency to repeat certain information a lot. I can’t tell if its the writer’s style or if its supposed to reflect how Berq’s mind works, but it annoys me.
Since she probably did it all the time as a ship, the fact Berq had no qualms about eavesdropping on the crew didn’t even register to me till I read your review. It just seemed like something she’d do.
I loved it a bit less too. Can you articulate your reasons for that?
Bringing new readers up to speed on the previous book took a while, but I assume you’re referring to something different, since you say it was an issue you had with book one. I’m not sure exactly what you’re referencing but repetition can is a technique of some writers’ style and I think it’s the case with Leckie. It doesn’t bother me– I enjoy her prose style.
I hear you on the eavesdropping thing but Breq is so conscious and aware of the ways in which privilege and social rank can lead to violations of others’ rights that I would have thought this would occur to her. That it doesn’t adds a shade of gray to her character, although I agree, it does seem like something she’d do given her history as ship and ancillaries. I also wonder if ignoring this issue is an attempt to dodge a bullet since the eavesdropping is necessary to Leckie’s refreshingly different first person multiple viewpoint perspective.
I havecthis book on reserve at the library so will have to wait in the queue butvi am looking forward to reading it
@Jennifer: Please feel welcome to come back and let me know what you thought!
@Janine: Its more than bringing readers up to speed, which I expected, its things that get brought up, then brought up again a few chapters later, then a third and fourth time, and etc.
The one that stood out to me in this book is a tad spoilery for the first book, but I remember the fact Berq couldn’t tell apart males and females being mentioned very, very frequently in the first book. It got to the point were I wondered how short the author thought her reader’s attention span was and started to feel damn annoying.
@Lostshadows: Ah, I see. I didn’t pick up on that but I can understand how that could bug.
I haven’t read your review yet because I just started the book but already I’m loving Ancillary Sword and very happy to see you have it as a recommended read. :)
I want to give this one a try, but I think I’d have to go back and re-read Ancillary Justice again. I was very confused by so much of the book. In fact, I think I need to re-read this review lol, because while I just know you summarized book 1 very well….I was confused all over again! I hate being confused by books with cool concepts. One aspect that really confused me, especially, was the way gender is discussed. I was not sure at all if some characters were female, male…neither? I felt wholly inadequate as a reader after finishing book one.
@Mandy: Great to hear it.
@KMont: I don’t think you’re alone in that–I’ve heard from others who found Ancillary Justice confusing or couldn’t get into it. It is a thinky, cerebral book as well as an emotional one and some of the concepts take a little time to wrap one’s head around.
I actually think Ancillary Sword is more accessible and easier to grasp, as well as starting out faster. And Leckie does summarize what happened in book one, so you might be better off picking up there if you want to continue with the series. But of course that’s up to you and rereading Ancillary Justice might clarify some things.
Re. gender specifically, I think we’re not supposed to know the answer to that. I find it easier to just stop trying to figure out the characters’ gender and go with what Breq says, even though we know she may be wrong (she can’t distinguish gender and I also think it doesn’t matter much to her). One of the things I love about these books is that reading them raises my consciousness level about just how much society boxes people into gender roles that often aren’t necessary.
In regards to gender, Breq did seem to mention a lot that she couldn’t distinguish between genders, and this is what kept it so up front for me, I think. It wasn’t, for me, a matter of wanting to box anyone into anything gender-wise, I just wanted to be able to understand who some of these people were that she was seeing/talking to/referring to and instead many of them looked, in my mind, like bodies with no faces, if that makes any sense, or lacking a full, well-rounded personality. It made a good deal of the book almost too much like a canvas that wasn’t finished.
I do wish I’d felt more connected to the book, but issues like above that cropped up for me were what kept me from being able to do so.
@KMont: Fair enough. Personally, I picture everyone as female except when it’s directly contradicted by the text. FWIW, that’s easier to do with Ancillary Sword as well because the characters Breq interacts with most often on Athoek are Radchaai and therefore refer to everyone as “she” in the same way that Breq does.
I’m bogged down in the middle of the first book. When I have time I think I’ll go back and try to listen to the first part of it again and see if I can into it more. I have a pretty bad track record with finishing Hugo winners.
@DS: There’s no such thing as a universally loved book, so if it’s not working for you, don’t feel that you have to get through it.
Great review! I’m not actually sure how I’d sum this one up myself, if I were to write about it.
I just jumped into Ancillary Sword without reading Ancillary Justice again, but I think I will try to read them both before Ancillary Mercy. (We’ll see, of course, since I never have as much time as I want, and I may not be able to resist reading the third book. But that is my plan right now. I believe I’d enjoy keeping the entire trilogy’s events and details very clear in my head.)
That’s an interesting point about Breq seeing her crew’s actions and emotions, and her not being conscious of that as a violation. As I read, I kinda skirted past that issue, in that I can remember feeling some unease but I didn’t think about it full-on either. It strikes me that for Breq to pull back from that, or develop a distaste for it, she’ll have to pull back from being ship more than she has. She is in this book (I think) still acting like Ship, like she and Ship are partners almost, though she’s responsible not just for the ship’s inhabitants—though they might be most dear to her—but for everyone she comes in contact with. She was programmed to care this way, and I don’t think that’s really left her. Near the end, when (to be vague) someone is threatened, Breq says or thinks that Station (which is a similarly constructed AI to a ship) is quite definitely unhappy that this person is in danger. And Breq shows insights at other times into Station. Of course, she could have those insights from her past and not her present, but I don’t think her past as a ship AI has left her. Perhaps can never leave her? I don’t know. It will be interesting to see where this goes in book 3.
But I’ll admit I also just really enjoy this technique as a way of watching events unfold, all funneled through Breq, but through others’ eyes as well. So I’m happy to theorize about it in this way.
I also enjoyed being used to the idea that everyone was viewed as “she”, instead of being struck by the device, as I was (positively) in AJ.
My final point! I liked Seivarden’s role, even if he was onscreen less than in the first book. In some way I was more moved by his vulnerability because he was in a stronger position, was interested in doing good work and being a good, strong person. He’s really been well developed over two books. I feel in some ways that Tisarwat served as the person this book that Breq, whether she likes them or not, is absolutely determined to save.
Thanks for creating this space to discuss this book!
Good point about Breq’s programming. I agree with what you said on this subject, and yet, for me there’s still a tension there because the books depend so much on us readers seeing Breq as a person who is in the right, as well as righteous, in her need and demand for justice. In Ancillary Justice I found her easier to root for, and now, in Ancillary Sword, there’s a shift toward greater complexity and less in the way of simple answers. Of course, that’s more lifelike, and in some ways better. And yet, when you mix that with Breq’s new high rank / privilege, bestowed by Mianaai (the villain of AJ), and add in her eavesdropping–still mingled with rescuing and helping others–it all becomes less clear cut. I still love Breq, but I have niggles.
I enjoy the technique a whole lot too. It’s just makes this book murkier, for me–which is not to say it’s not also brilliant. If the book wasn’t one that so clearly invited the reader to think about rank and privilege, colonialism and imperialism, and how they affect the ways we construct our identities, I might find it easier to skirt past the issue as you did and as other readers I’ve talked to have.
Oh yes absolutely. And I loved the Tisarwat storyline, but I still missed Seivarden.
My husband read these two books too, and he liked Ancillary Sword a lot less than I did. He made a flippant comment about whether Breq would find another new stray to save in the next book, too.