Updated on May 21, 2018
18. ‘Ancillary Sword’ by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Sword is the second in Ann Leckie’s award-winning ‘Ancillary’ series, following on from Ancillary Justice (which I’ve reviewed here). I had mixed feelings about the first book – partly because it’s really complex, hard-going sci-fi – and I thought I probably wouldn’t read the others, but nearly everyone in my sci-fi and fantasy book group told me I really should read the others, because they’re much easier to understand if you’ve got through the first one. Then I found it in my library and thought Fine, let’s do this!
This book continues the story of Breq/Justice of Toren, our protagonist, who was once a troop carrier spaceship for the technologically advanced and expansionist Radch Empire. As a spaceship, Justice of Toren was composed of its central AI brain, linked to hundred of ‘ancillaries’: human soldiers whose original personalities were replaced so they could be controlled by Justice of Toren. In Ancillary Justice, we learn how Justice of Toren was destroyed, along with all its ancillaries but one: Breq. Justice of Toren now lives entirely in this single body, and must deal not only with the agony of having lost her natural, multi-bodied form, but also with the breaking out of a civil war in the Radch, which is happening because the grand leader, Anaander Mianaai (also an ancillary-user), is having a conflict with herself that could tear the empire apart. In Ancillary Sword, one part of Anaander has sent Breq to a planet called Athoek, to protect the inhabitants (including someone very important to Breq) from the other, more warlike part of herself.
OK, so you see what I mean about it being complicated.
The people in my book group were right: Ancillary Sword was easier to follow than the first book because I’m already familiar with the mind-bending concepts of this world. That’s not to say it’s actually easy though. I really had to concentrate as I was reading, and it’s a tricky matter to keep all of the names and ranks in order, and to understand who is controlling what body. Of course, if you manage it, it’s a pretty rewarding reading experience. I think that’s probably what kept me going – even though it was hard work, I found that I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I read most of it over a single weekend because, once I started, I was really interested to pick it up again. In many ways, reading Ancillary Sword reminded me of reading The Goldfinch – I can’t say that I enjoyed it but there was something about the writing that made me want to keep reading.
The sci-fi in this book is, in many ways, secondary to the story. Of course the central premise is heavily science-fiction, but really this is a tale of political machinations and the minutiae of human interaction. AIs and ancillaries are intimately linked so that the AI always knows what the ancillary is feeling – physically and emotionally. Breq, even though she now has only one ancillary body, still naturally analyses people’s body language and speech to try and detect all those tiny details, so a lot of this book is given over to careful examination of how people think and move and speak. For a story with such a grand scale, it uses an extremely close-up lens.
Because Breq/Justice of Toren is an AI, she’s very logical, and her central struggle in this book is to uphold Radch law at a time of civil war, when it’s no longer clear what Radch law should be, or which part of their leader the Radchaai should get behind. As a result, Breq concentrates on doing what she can, which is mainly to improve the lives of poor people and exploited workers on the planet of Athoek and on the space station that orbits it. In her approach, Breq is scrupulously fair, totally honest, and absolutely set on ending any injustice she comes across. This is noble, of course, but also at times a bit irritating because it’s so neat and right. Since not much is done to advance the Anaander Minaai/civil war storyline (aside from Breq making a few significant discoveries), Ancillary Sword definitely feels like a middle book – it’s an exercise in tidying up one corner of the universe, and all the explosive confrontations will presumably happen in Book 3.
In the ‘Ancillary’ books, Leckie has created a rich and complex world. Her characters are like no characters I’ve ever read before, and even though I don’t love these books, there is something very compelling about them. Yes, I will be reading the rest, and if you like slow-paced, detailed, ‘thinky’ sci-fi then you probably should too.
“[No Radchaai] ever … questioned that the Radch was anything but just, proper, and beneficial.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Ancillary Sword here.