In Ancillary Justice, Leckie’s award-sweeping 2013 novel, we met Breq. Breq was a soldier, but before she was a soldier, she had been a ship, the Justice of Toren. Specifically, Breq was an ancillary, a human body whose personality has been erased, so that she could be a node of awareness for the ship’s AI. Justice of Toren comprised the ship itself and 2,000 human ancillaries in a distributed network. When Justice of Toren was destroyed in an act of treachery, only one ancillary, who was offline, survived: Breq. Ancillary Sword, which continues Breq’s adventures, hits a solid home run.
Breq’s search for vengeance in Ancillary Justice led her to the ruler of the vast, millennia-old Radch Empire, Anaander Mianaai, and to the discovery of a clandestine civil war. One faction in this battle fears the encroachment of aliens whose weapons exceed those of the empire. The other believes that the current treaty with the aliens will hold, and is seeking to make changes to the empire. That faction, for example, ended the creation of any more ancillaries (even though thousands of blanked humans remain in suspension, ready for use). One faction has begun to destroy the intersystem star gates that are the empire’s primary source of transportation.
Breq, now serving one of the factions, has been given a new ship, the Mercy of Kalr, a new assignment and new officers, including a brand-new adolescent Lieutenant. Breq is being sent to investigate the loss of some ships near the Ghost Gate, a gate that opens into a supposedly vacant sector of space.
Once Breq arrives in the Athoek system, she finds her problems are only beginning. The “baby” Lieutenant is someone Breq doubts she can trust. The captain of the battle ship Sword of Atagaris is distrustful and arrogant and there is serious social unrest aboard the Athoek space station. Breq’s personal situation is even more awkward as she contacts the sister of Lieutenant Awn, an officer Breq, as Justice of Toren, had grown to love, and who, under orders from the ruler, she executed.
The majority of Ancillary Sword takes place on Athoek Station and on the planet itself. It seems unlikely that a trade in stolen antiquities and a few missing tea-plantation slaves would have anything to do with whatever is on the other side of the Ghost Gate, but Leckie ties these elements together for a satisfying ending that still doesn’t answer any of the really big questions facing the empire. The clues are there, though, ready to be picked up in future books.
Leckie got a lot of buzz, positive and negative, for her choice to make the Radch language one that has a single gender. In Ancillary Sword, Breq meets a culture that designates two genders in its language, and it’s fun to see her struggle a bit with words like “grandfather” and “brother” which represent not only foreign words but odd, unnecessary concepts. Leckie has a bit more fun at Breq’s expense earlier in the book, when they arrive at Athoek Station just in time for the Festival of Genitalia. Only one “set” of genitalia is represented in the festival, and the Station is covered with brightly colored penises. Breq is confused about the origins of the festival and never really gets a complete answer.
Leckie does more with language than play with gender conceptions. The empire’s official language is filled with subtle gestures that take the place of words. With so many imperial officials connected to AIs, there is a sense that language is becoming sharper and thinner; more formal, maybe even more limited as people access information in different ways.
Beyond that, Breq’s investigation once again addresses issues of empire. Has the empire expanded as far as it can? What can happen next? Will it be a gradual transition, a violent rebellion, or conquest from another source? Any and all of those are on the table, and Breq, who now is, really, only one person, is trying to affect that outcome; that, and keep the people she is responsible for as safe as she can.
More so than in Ancillary Justice, Leckie uses this book to explore the patronage system, social inequities, bigotry and various versions of slavery. “Slavery” has ended in the empire, except for the existing ancillaries, who don’t count; except for the tea pickers on the plantations, who theoretically get paid, but who live in a “company town” system that impoverishes them and leaves them no recourse for grievance; and except for the ships themselves, who may be closer to “personhood” than anyone wants to admit. Even when change is attempted, it is small and slow, and the climax of this book happens in part because even though Breq has tried to provide justice, she isn’t moving fast enough for others who are angry at the system.
Leckie isn’t merely holding up a mirror to modern day life with its economic and social issues, although you can find the correspondences. She has created an entirely new society and is using it to ask questions. This is my favorite kind of science fiction, and Ancillary Sword keeps the questions coming.
Ancillary Justice caused quite a splash, winning the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, and Locus awards for Best SF novel in 2013. So expectations were sky-high for the follow-up Ancillary Sword. In particular, readers were eager to see how the battle of opposed personalities of the Lord of the Radsch, Anaander Mianaai, would play out after the exciting events of the first book. Unfortunately, I found this book to be disappointing.
Although Leckie sprinkles some tantalizing clues about Ghost Gates, the alien Presger, and various plots and factions, this volume is largely concerned with economic and social oppression on the planet Athoek and its space station. The majority of its time is spent exploring the gap between Radchaai and non-Radchaai subjects, economic slavery in tea-growing plantations, and corruption, so you will learn next to nothing about the larger galactic struggle that was brewing at the end of Ancillary Justice. As a result, all of the delicious tension built up in the previous book suddenly dissipates, leaving us with a story of social manners, minor intrigues, and the increasingly grating cultural chauvinism of the Radchaai civilization.
In fact, it was quite frustrating to learn almost nothing of importance about Anaander Mianaai, who personality disorder could rip the Radchaai Empire to pieces, as her only presence in the book is quickly dispatched in the first 50 pages. That was one of the best parts of the first book! So now Breq is Fleet Captain of the warship Mercy of Kalr, but she spends much of the book stirring up discontent among the lower-floor dwellers of Athoek space station, uncovering inequalities and biases in their treatment, along with their resentment of the station’s administrators and station AI. There are plenty of intricacies to be explored here, but I couldn’t help feeling upset that the best parts of the story were basically put on hold. The same applied to the exploited workers on a tea plantation on the planet itself. Breq has turned into a social justice warrior, instead of a former fragment of a ship AI, exposing corruption and inequality, and then working to see that justice prevails.
It’s an admirable sentiment, to be sure, but just isn’t as propulsive and exciting as the larger-scale space opera of Ancillary Justice, especially the alternating storylines in different time periods. Moreover, the Radchaai emphasis on propriety, social status, and tea-drinking really was excessive. There wasn’t a single chapter that did not feature some discussion of tea, over tea, or relating to tea. Good grief, is there no other beverage in a giant galaxy-spanning empire??? And the parallels with British Colonialism became more transparent in this book, making the Radchaai less original than I had first thought. If we just had H.M.S. in front of ship names, their elaborate uniforms, military hierarchy, and insistence on cultural superiority struck me as so stereotypically British I couldn’t bear it. It seems like such a waste of a potentially fascinating far-future empire. And I think the Radchaai suffers from a lack of rival Empires nearby to clash with. There are the alien Presger, but all we get is a weirdly incoherent human translator for the Presger, and nothing much is revealed about them. We’ll have to wait for the third volume and hope the main storyline resumes.
Even the novelty of the distributed consciousness AIs has worn out since the first book, as has the all-female gender pronouns. Perhaps all new ideas lose some freshness with familiarity, but I felt like a lot of this book revisited the same ideas as the first book, but with less energy. In fact, the further I went, the more this book showed alarming signs of that most dreaded of ailments, Middle Book Syndrome. It’s undeniable (for me at least) that this book made no attempt to carry forward the main narrative of the first book, instead just dropping a few teasers in an otherwise unrelated storyline about oppressed tea-plantation workers, laying the groundwork for the final volume. Come on, this is supposed to be a galaxy-wide shakeup in the power structure! What happened? I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that book three will return to the promise of the first volume, since this one was a let-down.