Last year I read and loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and felt very smug and vindicated when it ended up winning almost every science fiction award there is, including the Hugo for Best Novel. (Which is silly since I had nothing to do with it, but shows you my level of investment.)
But sometimes when you really, really love a book, reading its sequel is a dicey proposition. Ancillary Justice was such a strong book, but Leckie had also taken years to write it. Could she possibly manage to pull off the same thing a second time?
Reader, she could. Or rather, she could write a very different book which is just as brilliant and thoughtful and immersive.
Breq, the protagonist of Ancillary Justice, who used to be a ship (this makes more sense in context) returns to an uncertain world in Ancillary Sword. She has made an uneasy peace with Anaander Mianaai and been given a new ship, The Mercy of Kalr. But the other part of Anaander Mianaai is still out there (this…also makes more sense in context) and Breq’s old life is gone irretrievably.
Ancillary Sword takes place in a fairly limited setting, Athoek and Athoek Station, and the concerns it’s dealing with are at least on the surface likewise limited. Ancillary Justice was all about the grand reaches of politics and long-planned revenge; it had, for all its groundedness, the feeling of an epic. Ancillary Sword is about what comes afterwards, the search for meaning and identity, the awkward coming-to-terms with a sometimes unfriendly world. This is not a young adult book, but it shares some of the themes that YA often concerns itself with, even though the protagonist is in fact a centuries old former spaceship.
But if the Breq of Ancillary Justice was bound to the past, defined almost entirely by her quest for revenge against the Lord of the Raadch, the Breq of Ancillary Sword begins to become a person. This comes across most clearly in two areas: the way she deals with the command of Mercy of Kalr, and the way she deals with the situation on the tea plantation. With Mercy of Kalr, she shows that she can use the knowledge of being a ship, not cutting that part of her away, but also has to fumble her way through the awkwardness of human relationships. She’s dealt with Seivarden before, of course, but they are two exiles flung out of time. I liked both the strengths and mistakes that Breq makes here.
But with the tea plantation we also see that Breq is someone who still cares about justice, about righting wrongs. She is not one to stand by and let the powerful ride rough-shod over everyone else, and yet at the same time she understands her own complicity in the system. Leckie does not make the mistake of assuming a simple solution for the world she has created, and Breq herself must operate within its confines. The part of Breq that spent so long planning revenge against Anaander Mianaai is still there.
(Can I just say for a moment that I so appreciated that Leckie does not ignore the fact that the tea Breq drinks comes from slave labor, and in fact makes this an integral part of the story? I think too many book would simply hand-wave it away, and instead here it becomes part of the quiet subversion, working against the system within it, that I loved.)
I’ve seen a few other people say that this one has middle book problems; I didn’t see it, personally. But then I would probably read a book all about Breq and the crew of the Mercy of Kalr just going about their daily lives. I found the interactions there fascinating, and touching. And the worldbuilding continues to be superb. I love all the little details that underlie the story and show us the way this culture thinks. The writing too is understated and beautiful.
Ultimately, this is–like Ancillary Justice–a book that succeeds in being both thought-provoking and a good story. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Orbit Books; adult science fiction