Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Anthony G Williams

Apr 18, 2007
This is the sequel to the author's multiple-award-winning Ancillary Justice, reviewed here in August 2014. This is the brief background summary which I posted then:

Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in which humanity has spread over a large volume of the galaxy, living uneasily alongside a powerful alien empire, the Presger. The human zone is ruled by the Radchaai in general and the immortal Anaander Mianaai in particular, relying on a fleet of powerful starships inextricably linked to their Artificial Intelligences and given names accordingly (in this respect, reminiscent of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels). Each ship carries a force of soldiers, mainly ancillaries: captives who have been given various enhancements to turn them into super-soldiers but have had their personalities wiped, being replaced with advanced fighting skills and an absolute obedience to the Radchaai. They are mentally linked to each other and to their ship, and are considered to be no longer human.

The story is told in the first person by Breq, whom we soon learn is an ancillary from the One Esk fighting unit of the starship Justice of Toren. Uniquely, she has been separated from her ship for nineteen years
…. Breq is on a mission, but exactly what and why we only discover later in the story.

The first thing to say about Ancillary Sword is that there is no point in reading it unless you have previously (and preferably recently) read Ancillary Justice, as the sequel carries on directly with no "the story so far" recap to help readers. In fact, I struggled a bit at first as I had forgotten much of the original story (including the ending), but I gradually recalled what was going on as the book progressed.

In fact, the sequel is easier to read than the original (provided that you have read that first) because the story is much more straightforward; all of the strange background to the universe of the story, only very gradually revealed in Justice, is out in the open. The genderless characters (the Radchaai language does not distinguish between male and female, and everyone is referred to as "she" regardless) are now more familiar, although I still find that aspect unnecessary and a little irritating.

In contrast to Justice, Sword hits the ground running (or strolling, anyway) with action from the start, even though it certainly isn't a particularly action-orientated novel by normal SF standards. Now in charge of a starship, Breq travels to a relatively peaceful backwater at the request of one part of the divided immortal leader Anaander Mianaai, but has her own agenda and priorities. There is lots of attention given to the emotions of the characters and to their relationships (a faint echo of Lois McMaster Bujold there, but without the humour) and also quite a lot of issues left dangling at the end. This gives it an element of marking time while waiting for the final part of the trilogy. In conclusion, I think that these novels, while not great, are certainly good and well worth reading. The third volume (Ancillary Mercy) is already available, so that gets added to my shopping list.
My take:

This is the second book in the Imperial Radch series and continues the story of Breq, all that remains of Justice of Toren and now Breq Mianaai, still accompanied by Seivarden, sent on a new mission by Anaander Mianaai (one of her at least!) but still determined to do what she wants to do rather than what the Lord of the Radch wants her to do, despite the slight embarrassment that currently they seem to be one and the same.

This is a competent sequel to Ancillary Justice and Leckie builds Breq’s character well, though Seivarden is rather left in the background for much of the book. However I found this story to be much weaker, I was never sure quite what Breq was meant to achieve in the Athoek system where all the action takes place and, even by the end of the book, I was still none the wiser. Stuff happened and she reacted to it and dealt with it, mostly competently, but that was all reacting to events; I still had no idea what her or Anander Mianaai’s actual motivations for coming to this system in the first place were. But never mind, the book was well paced with good action and good dialogue so the journey was enjoyable even if the destination was a mystery throughout!

My one major complaint throughout was the writing. It is mostly good and flows along easily enough, but every now and then it seems to blow a gasket with passages completely opaque to me. I’d go back and reread them, several times, and, sometimes, I’d finally catch the meaning but frequently I was still left in utter confusion. None of these seemed to result in me losing anything critical from the story but they did interrupt it badly. Frequently it felt as though I was simply completely missing something that Leckie expected me to understand. Had stuff been edited out and later passages not fixed to cover the omission? Was I being thrown by Americanisms that I didn’t understand? I’m really not sure but it happened often enough to be annoying.

That combined with the weaker story have sadly resulted in me marking this one down one star from the first book. I’ll still continue with the next book and, at least for now, am happy to put these lapses in clarity down to Leckie still being a very new author.
This series looks very good and is on my "to read list".
This series looks very good and is on my "to read list".
It is a good series. But I wouldn't say it's as exceptional as some have made it out to be; it's a good solid debut which show great promise for Leckie's future. Her approach to gender in it is quite neat but even that is not really different to the many other SF books that present a future with gender equality. Her use of language for this is, however, quite clever in that it makes (or should make) the reader realise it is futile to even consider the gender of the protagonists. And thank goodness she's done it without inventing the painful new pronouns that most authors seem to think are necessary.

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