Last year Ann Leckie wowed critics and audiences alike with her stunning debut novel Ancillary Justice. The story followed Breq, a humanoid ancillary possessing the AI of the starship Justice of Toren, as she sought revenge on the man who caused her destruction and ordered her to kill a beloved officer. The novel won a mantelful of awards this year, including the Hugo, Nebula and Clarke, and instantly made her a star.
And this year she has returned with Ancillary Sword, the second book in the “Imperial Radch” trilogy, arguably the most anticipated sci-fi novel of the Fall.
Ancillary Sword picks up immediately after the events of Ancillary Justice. There will be spoilers for the first novel, so if you haven’t read it consider yourself warned. Or better yet, go read it – now.
Okay? Then let’s continue.
At the end of Ancillary Justice, Breq has discovered the cause of her destruction was the splitting of the Radch empire’s leader, Anaander Mianaai, into multiple personalities. The emperor possesses thousands of bodies spread across dozens of star systems, and those bodies have aligned into two warring factions. Breq teams up with one faction to destroy the other and is granted citizenship in the Empire and the captaincy of her own starship, the Mercy of Kalr.
For her first mission, Breq is sent to the distant planet Athoek to maintain order and assure the uninterrupted flow of the Radch’s primary commodity, tea. Breq discovers conspiracies, oppression and slavery on the planet, and through force of her will, seeks social justice for the oppressed peoples against the ruling elite.
Her mission also has a personal note: Breq’s beloved Lieutenant Awn, whom she murdered on the orders of Anaander Mianaai in Ancillary Justice, has a sister who works as a botanist on Athoek. Breq wants to make amends.
Ancillary Sword maintains the unusual pronouns of the first novel. The Radchaai people have no distinction in their gendered pronouns, so Breq refers to everyone as “she”. This took some getting used to in Ancillary Justice, but it feels more natural as the series progresses. It does cause confusion for Breq as she has to guess the gender of many of the people she encounters, and it leaves the reader wondering as well. Gender confusion also leads to some great humor, like when Breq is wondering about the holy rites of Athoek’s “Genitalia Festival”:
“…colorful garlands brightened the walls. Seasonally appropriate garlands. “Captain,” I said after ten steps, without breaking stride. “I do understand that this is the Genitalia Festival. But when you say genitalia, doesn’t that usually mean genitals generally? Not just one kind?” For all the steps I’d taken, and as far down the corridor as I could see, the walls were hung with tiny penises. Bright green, hot pink, electric blue, and a particularly eye-searing orange.”
Apart from Breq’s narration and gender confusion, Ancillary Sword doesn’t have the same feel as Ancillary Justice. The first novel interlocked the story of Breq’s quest for revenge with the events 20 years previous which led to the destruction of Justice of Toren, presented from multiple POVs due to the multitude of ancillaries that shared a common mind. In this book there is only a single narrative following Breq’s actions and investigations on Athoek. Leckie does mix in some alternate perspectives, however, with Breq able to psychically link with Mercy of Kalr, giving her visions of the crew’s actions as well.
But what I liked most about Ancillary Sword is that Breq’s sense of revenge from the first book has transformed into a sense of social justice.Rather than seeking to destroy the oppressors, she is now seeking to lift the oppressed as well. In my review of the first book, I noted the way Leckie injected humanity into Breq. Her humanity continues to grow in Ancillary Sword. Her actions are earning her some powerful enemies, both in the Imperial fleet and among the elite citizenry of the Empire.
And now I have to wait another year for Ancillary Mercy to find out how this whole thing resolves. In the meantime, Tor.com has a short story available in the Imperial Radch universe, Night’s Slow Poison. And I expect to see Ancillary Sword racking up the nominations for next year’s awards.