Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice swept all the major science fiction awards last year, and made her legions of fans. Now, in her much-anticipated sequel Ancillary Sword, we have a chance to return to the incredible world she built.
Though Ancillary Sword takes place just a week after the action of Justice, the book's structure is almost the opposite of its predecessor. Justice followed ship-turned-humanoid Breq on a mission of revenge against her murderer. But Sword tags along with Breq on a variety of loosely-connected adventures as she waits for Emperor Mianaai's warring hive mind to make their next moves. As the novel opens, one half of Mianaai's hive mind has made Breq the equivalent of an admiral, giving her command of a ship — and command over other captains too. She's been sent to a remote tea plantation planet, whose strategic position next to several wormhole gates makes it a potential target.
Breq is in a dangerous position, unsure that she wants to ally with any of Mianaai's shattered parts, but forming a temporary alliance with one for the time being. At the same time, she's trying to forge a relationship with a ship again. This is particularly complicated because she's still mourning the loss of her own past as a ship with a hive mind of ancillaries. She struggles to integrate with her new ship and to connect with its crew of non-ancillaries, and we get some intriguing hints about what the love lives of ships are actually like.
Indeed, the love of a ship for its humans (and vice versa) is one of the themes of this novel. Breq is still aching over the loss of her beloved Lieutenant Awn, and she's motivated as much by Awn's political beliefs as she is by her ostensible mission. Things get especially complicated when we discover that Awn's little sister works on the station in orbit around the tea plantation planet. Part of the intrigue of this book is trying to disentangle the personal and political motivations behind Breq's interventions in the colonial politics of the station.
What seems at first to be a story of civil war gradually becomes something else entirely. War, as Breq notes at one point, is mostly a matter of waiting. And while she's waiting, Breq has no interest in drinking tea with other elites from the Radch empire. She wants to understand why some people live in a broken-down, unserviced part of the space station without water or other basic services. What's the connection between this Undergarden, as it's called, and the class of people who pick tea down on the planet's vast plantations?
Leckie's point seems to be that human rights missions are as much a part of civil war as space battles. Groups thrown together by larger conflict often abuse each other in ways that are far worse than what a ship can do with its missiles during combat. It's a smart observation, and fits nicely into one of the main preoccupations of the Ancillary series. That said, the meandering structure of this novel makes it a kind of social justice shaggy dog story, where Leckie's focus shifts from issue to issue without a strong narrative thread uniting them.
To the extent that there is an overarching plot, it's simply that Breq is a kind of human rights superhero, able to dispense equal rights wherever she goes. This occasionally makes Breq rather insufferable as a protagonist — she always seems to know exactly how to address the problems of the downtrodden using constructive dialogue, and never just shoots the hell out of bad guys the way she did in Justice. I'm not saying she has to be violent to be interesting. But she no longer radiates the spiky ambivalence of a realistic character; I yearned for her to shed that holier-than-thou facade and show us how messy her feelings really are.
Despite its flaws, Ancillary Sword is a gripping read, with top-notch worldbuilding and a set of rich subtexts about human rights, colonialism — and (yes) hive mind sex. My hope is that Leckie will have more time to craft the next novel in the series, so that the narrative feels more focused and the characters as realistic as the ones we met in Justice.
Order Ancillary Sword from Powell's Books.