First up, have you read Ancillary Justice? No? Well, go on then. I’ll wait.
…Well, no, obviously I won’t. But still: I don’t need to talk up the first novel in Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy – the six award wins, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C Clarke Awards, speak for themselves. Ancillary Justice is the undeniable hit of 2013, and deserved all the praise it got. And now it’s time to talk about the sequel.
I won’t waste time getting to the key point: I think Ancillary Sword is every bit as good as Ancillary Justice, and in some areas even better. This is a more focused story, one that centres upon the politics in and around a space station and one part of a planet in a single system, unlike the multi-threaded story bridging 20 years in the first book. It’s also a deeper exploration of the culture and social structures within the systems of the Imperial Radch.
There are so many things the book touches on I couldn’t possibly go over them all in detail without writing a novel’s worth myself. In fact it feels like already have in the many drafts I’ve started writing where I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of one topic or another. I have tried to restrain myself below.
As with Ancillary Justice, the book is in many areas a strong criticism of the structures of imperialism. We see the ways in which social inequalities are created and maintained; the way privilege begets abuse of privilege; the way the casting of the conquering force as “civilised” and the conquered as “savage” leads to the treatment of the latter as subhuman. One story thread concerns the abusive behaviour of a plantation owner’s daughter, dealing well with issues of privilege and the attitudes of a people living under a system that sustains such mistreatment.
The resistance of these systems to change is a major source of conflict for the novel. Breq, promoted to Fleet Captain by Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, enters the Athoek system as an outsider in a position of power, and immediately begins to challenge the status quo. The Radchaai base their cultural philosophy on the ideas of Justice, Propriety, and Benefit, but this has become perverted: they believe all that is beneficial must perforce be just and proper. As is always the case, it is in the best interest of those who benefit from inequality to maintain the inequality while pretending that it does not exist; from the beginning Breq sets out to make both impossible.
Running under these larger themes is the issue of Breq’s own identity, and the related issues of the Radchaai use of ancillaries. As a former ancillary herself, one part of an entire ship’s mind, not only must Breq live now as an individual human, but she must do so as captain of another ship, Mercy of Kalr. Mercy of Kalr has been stripped of its own ancillaries, while its human crew strive to recreate ancillary behaviour as faithfully as they can, which can even go so far as acting as cyrenoids for the Ship. And there’s a further element I will not spoil here which brings up the abominable ethics behind the creation of ancillaries. Breq is not the only character here having to learn to function as a fraction of her former self.
One issue which is omnipresent in the book but not addressed much is privacy. Aboard Radchaai ships and stations, nothing is private. The ship and station AIs are always watching, wherever you are. Personnel serving aboard a Radchaai vessel are directly linked to the ship; this connection allows the ship to view through their eyes, and to register the tiniest of physiological details in a way that allows her to read their emotions. The Radchaai do not seem to question this lack of privacy where AI are concerned, but in Ancillary Sword, Breq is able to use her ancillary implants to view the same things the ship sees. Throughout the book, Mercy of Kalr shows Breq conversations and actions that occur outside of her view, down to the most personal of situations. Nobody in the crew is aware that she can do this. It is a violation of privacy on the deepest possible level, and to Breq it is nothing – she is a former AI herself, and she is accustomed to seeing much more than what Ship shows her.
Also emerging from Breq’s past as the Justice of Toren is her attitude toward the people she interacts with. Accustomed to watching over and caring for her passengers and crew, she has a tendency to think of them in a way that renders them childlike. She is constantly reading the emotions of her crew members, and often her interpretations of those readings come across as somewhat patronising. I do not bring this up as a flaw: This element of Breq’s attitude exists subtly in the text, a decision of narrative voice that very much fits the person Breq used to be, a part of her personality rekindled by her now being connected – however incompletely – with a ship’s sensors.
Both of these issues of Breq’s perspective, her casual invasion of privacy and her condescension, are things I’d like to see explored – and, perhaps, challenged – in the next book of the series, as she adjusts further to no longer being Justice of Toren.
Finally, I want to touch on the issue of gender. The novel continues the practise of keeping the majority of the characters ungendered, by use of female pronouns for everyone. For the most part this does not affect the novel at all – their gender is really irrelevant. What it does do, though, is bring a subtext to the parts of the novel that concern interpersonal relationships, particularly the abusive relationships I mentioned above. By not gendering the characters involved (or, in one instance, by gendering a character in a way that defies cliché), Leckie invites the reader to evaluate their assumptions about sex and gender in these subjects. An abuser might default male in many minds; this book simultaneously genders the character female and renders her gender unknowable, counteracting this default bias and making the story not about gender at all, but about behaviour and privilege. It’s turning out to be a very effective technique.
Ancillary Sword is a very, very good book. It’s a book that tells us Leckie’s debut was not a fluke: she can and will continue to produce fiction with exceptional worldbuilding, politics, and characterisation. In this second book, she’s given us a story on an intimate scale with a limited setting; I wonder if in the third, she’ll show us something big. Whatever it turns out to be, I will be looking forward to Ancillary Mercy with great eagerness.