An A.I. in a human body attempts to keep the peace and root out injustice as political scheming and post-colonial tensions threaten the safety of a space system in this richly thematic scifi sequel from Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice, 2014; Hugo and Nebula awards).
Plot: Gets into Gear
Fleet captain Breq, once the artificial intelligence that controlled a ship and dozens of bodies, is now reduced to embodying a single human form. When her grief-fueled revenge mission of the prior book catalyzes what promises to be a universe-wide civil war between the emperor of the realm’s fragmented personalities, Breq is sent to Athoeki system to keep the peace. Complicating her task, there is something horribly wrong with her new lieutenant. One she arrives in the system, which was recently conquered, Breq finds that its story of benevolently civilizing the natives is wearing dangerously thin. Athoeki is also personally significant to Breq. For decades, she has been haunted by the guilt of having killed an officer she loved. Discovering that the officer’s sister is stationed nearby, Breq is determined to find if a shred of redemption is still possible.
Ancillary Sword suffers a bit from comparison to its predecessor: this time around there’s no immediate impulse kicking off the story (a body facedown in the snow) or mystery dangled to reel us in (what happened twenty years ago?). Breq is just given the vague assignment to keep everything stable in a system, where, at first glance, everything is. (News of the civil war hasn’t even reached here yet). The plot finds its legs as Breq’s disdain for authority and her refusal to tolerate injustices shake the status quo and draw ire, rewarding us with some solid action and new discoveries about the universe.
Themes: Poignant and Replete
The novel is thick with themes, one area where it truly shines. Breq still struggles with having a consciousness and identity that are trapped in a single body. Whereas before she could always hibernate bodies that were overcome by emotion, she is now at mercy to this one’s hormones and wear and tear. Her new inability to be self-contained and self-sufficient begins to open the question of how she might exist as part of society. Equally weighty themes are the limits of justice, and the impossibility of redemption. Breq is forced to confront the inherent failure in her revenge mission, as no matter what she does, the murdered will never come back to life and, with her other bodies dead, she will never fully be herself again.
“When I had been a single ancillary, one human body among thousands, part the ship Justice of Toren, I had never been alone. I had always been surrounded by myself, and the rest of myself had always known if any particular body needed something — rest, food, touch, reassurance…. Oh, how I missed the rest of myself.”
– Ancillary Sword
Characters: Packed with Meaning
Many of the characters are on such a grand scale (or in the case of Breq, so cold in manner) that readers looking to find friends among them may be disappointed. Yet the characters’ complicated situations lend them weight and give us plenty to think about. In addition to Breq, the cast features a time-transplanted aristocrat determined to develop empathy and a fresh-faced teenager whose insecurities are fueled in equal parts by angsty hormones and the echoes of an ancient and vicious personality that only mostly-failed at rewriting her mind. There’s a lot to dig into.
Atmosphere and Language: Detailed and Genderless
Careful attention to cultural details — everything from the various foods, clothing styles, and religions, to rules of social niceties — make for a vivid and believable universe. The culture further emerges in Breq’s gender-indifferent narration (every character is “she”), something that won the previous novel a good deal of applause. To be clear: there are male characters, but Breq’s native language only has a single gender pronoun, and when interacting with diverse cultures, she’s not always able to accurately decipher clues from their dress and behavior. At first blush, the assumption of women as the norm is refreshing; second glance reminds that it’s not actually “female” but no gender at all. The device removes the knotty debate of how a character reflects on stereotypical gender roles (too affirming? trying too hard to reject it?), and restores each character to an individual, not a symbol. The device befits an A.I. narrator, for whom viewing someone in terms of gender is far less useful than viewing them as a collection of their goals, mannerisms, and potential to be a threat.
Second Book Blues
As a sequel, Ancillary Sword has to decide how to get newcomers up to speed, refresh returning readers on the key details, and still keep up the pace. For a returning reader, this novel feels like it over-explains. The result is some clunkiness, and interactions being interpreted for us, rather than allowing us to draw their own conclusion.
(For instance, over the course of one conversation, Breq repeatedly tells us that it is unusual to speak directly to an ancillary. She addresses one, and, when it answers, notes, “Its voice was flat, toneless. It would betray none of the surprise I was sure it felt at my addressing it directly this way for a second time.” Later the ancillary responds again: “To all appearances emotionless. But almost certainly taken aback by my question.”)
Ancillary Sword, dishes up more of the richly-detailed and thoughtfully-planned universe of the Radchaai empire. This sequel expands its cast of troubled characters mired in unique thematically-gripping situations. Overall, it keeps up the momentum and reminds us why we loved Ancillary Justice.
Middle books do have an awkward balance to strike. If you have any thoughts on what a better approach might have been, please post below!
Christopher Paolini’s Eldest (sequel to Eragon) had an interesting take on this: it started with a few page synopsis of the previous book. As a kid with time to crack open a sequels fresh after reading their prequels, I appreciated this. In general though, I expect the first 1-2 chapters of a second book to be a bit slower as the author reminds us of what’s what, but after that, I’m hoping everything’s up to speed, and that readers can turn back to the previous book if they want to catch everything.