Ancillary Sword

by Ann Leckie

Cover image

Series: Imperial Radch #2
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: October 2014
ISBN: 0-316-24665-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 354

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This is the second book in the Imperial Radch series and a direct sequel to Ancillary Justice. You don't want to read this book out of order, since the previous book sets up the background of everything that happens here. Besides, Ancillary Justice is an amazing book.

It's going to be challenging to review Ancillary Sword without spoiling the previous book. If you're planning on reading Ancillary Justice but haven't gotten to it, you may want to stop here and come back to this review after you've read it. Or, even better, just read both books. They're some of the best science fiction I've read.

Ancillary Justice started small, with one person and their quixotic search for revenge, and grew large, to encompass conflicts and confrontations that would shake the Radch. Ancillary Sword returns to a smaller scale and stays there. This means that much of what was left unresolved at the end of the previous book is still unresolved; Leckie does not continue escalating into large-scale conflict. It also means that we see a lot more of Breq making personal choices and trying to work out her own sense of morality, plus semi-adopting a couple more injured people along the way.

One of my favorite types of stories is where I get to watch someone who is very good at something do the thing that they're very good at. Breq's unique background and experience makes her a wildcard outsider with vast experience in her new role. (Not to mention the special advantages she has from her implants.) Her long experience with people, similarly from a unique perspective, lets her use her power to effectively navigate political situations while keeping people slightly off-balance. And now she has some real power, made more potent for being somewhat ill-defined.

In short, this is a story of political agency, given to someone who hasn't had it before but who is very good at using it. It's immensely satisfying, in part because it's not a simple wish fulfillment. Breq can't just reshape the world to her preferences; in fact, she can't do much about one of the social conflicts she runs into, except treat the people involved with unexpected respect. But she can occasionally do something, and she can always upset existing power structures in subtle ways, and the way Leckie writes this makes it so much fun to read.

I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed this so much is that Breq is not relentlessly introspective. She just acts. Usually this sort of book involves lots of soul-searching and analysis, and the lack is refreshing. The other people in the story analyze Breq much more than she analyzes herself, sometimes incorrectly, and Breq finds the whole thing faintly amusing. Not only does this keep the story from bogging down in too much internal drama, it means that Breq frequently surprises the reader, usually in ways that had me grinning. And, despite not mulling things over incessantly, she is growing and developing, finding her own sense of morality and and ethics in a way that's sometimes only apparent in retrospect.

The one caveat I will mention is that this is a book that concerns itself a great deal with colonialism and racial slavery, but it's a fantasy of political agency focused on someone who's part of the dominant culture. While it's not quite accurate to say that Breq is this world's equivalent of white, she can pass, and she's Radchaai. I thought the book handles the issues reasonably well, but it is still using oppressed cultures to focus on the agency and power of someone who is, comparatively, privileged. This didn't bother me while I was reading the story, but it started to bother me a little afterwards once it was pointed out. There's nothing inherently wrong with that story, but it's a rather common pattern, and I'm afraid Ancillary Sword doesn't do much to broaden the pattern. That said, it's a caveat rather than a fatal flaw, at least for me.

Ancillary Sword is obviously the middle book of a trilogy, and normally the lack of forward progress on the overarching story and the sense of filling in background and setting the scene would undermine the book. But Breq and the other characters in this world are so fascinating that I didn't mind. The ending was not quite what I expected, but worked better the more that I thought about it. I'm really looking forward to the next book.

Followed by Ancillary Mercy.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-01-04

Last modified and spun 2015-10-16