Breq is a soldier who used to be a warship. Once a weapon of conquest controlling thousands of minds, now she only has a single body and serves the emperor she swore to destroy.
Given a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to the only place in the galaxy she will agree to go: Athoek station, to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew – a lieutenant she murdered in cold blood.
Ancillary Sword, as the cover says, is the sequel to the Nebula Award winning, BSFA Award winning, Clarke Award winning, Hugo Award winning Locus Award winning, Kitschie winnning debut novel (yes, really) Ancillary Justice. Leckie’s sophomore outing, therefore, has a lot to live up to.
And boy, does Leckie deliver. In serious, glorious style. I went into Ancillary Sword nervous; having championed Ancillary Justice, having represented Ann Leckie at one of the many awards ceremonies she has triumphed at, having been so blown away by the first book, my fear that the follow-up would fall short was less about it not being good, and more about it not reaching the heights of its predecessor. Reader, I am happy to reiterate: it doesn’t. The linguistic idea of using female pronouns and nouns for everyone – mother and daughter, never parent or father or son – is not a trick that gets less interesting as we see it more; Ancillary Sword is more concerned with civilians and with interpersonal relationships among a broader spectrum of individuals, and therefore it has a different impact. The primary force is that gender, and hence sexuality, are irrelevant; it doesn’t matter what gender two characters who feel attraction are, they just feel attraction. That’s a really powerful and important thing to see, and Ancillary Sword showcases it excellently.
Of course, Ancillary Sword is far more than just that one element. Leckie, in this novel, has Breq captaining a Ship, AI and all; that Ship, Mercy of Kalr, hasn’t got ancillaries, but its previous captain ordered the crew to behave as if they were ancillaries. Leckie paints beautifully the various results of this for Breq, herself an ex-ancillary, ex-Ship; not only the relationship between a Ship-in-human-body and a Ship-as-Ship, but also the strange combination of discomfort and reassurance Breq takes from her false ancillaries, and the damage the loss of the hive-self has done. Ancillary Sword is a beautiful first-person portrait of Breq’s recovery, but isn’t just concerned with her; Lieutenant Tisarwat, a character introduced in this novel, has a not wholly dissimilar experience, and seeing the different ways each incorporates and deals with that experience is fascinating.
This isn’t a book focused wholly on relationships, though. Ancillary Sword feels like a response to On Basilisk Station; in each case a new commander is sent to take control of the defences of a station and the planets surrounding it. While David Weber’s Honor Harrington is concerned only with the military and logistical sides of this, Leckie has Breq take a far wider view of “defence”: and that gives Leckie a chance to delve into some of the socal fabric underlying the Radch empire. Socio-economic injustices and the way conveniently-invisible-but-vital groups come in for a serious critique and the idea of how to deal with the fallout of that, in the long term, is discussed as a problem, rather than being solved. The long-term impact of serfdom or slavery is discussed directly and seems to be an entry into discussions of how to deal with the US’s problematic history of oppression in the South; Ancillary Sword doesn’t just not seek to give answers, it actively demands we don’t look for easy answers or to simple saviours. Leckie goes so far as to include a power-imbalance rape, although it is never called that; but it is made abundantly clear that consent is impossible between two people with a major power imbalance (p282). The extent to which this book takes on social issues and the construction of, and underpinning of, society, is really glorious.
So far I’ve not actually really talked about the plot of the novel, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. Suffice to say that where Ancillary Justice was a brilliant, crunchy science fiction yarn with some hints of Iain M. Banks, Ancillary Sword completely strikes its own path; Leckie, here, is like no other author, and amazing with it. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but Ancillary Sword deserves – no, demands! – the same level of recognition as that received by Ancillary Justice.
DoI: ARC received from Orbit, the publisher of Ancillary Justice & Ancillary Sword, on request. I accepted the BSFA Award for Best Novel, won by Ancillary Justice, on Ann Leckie’s behalf at EasterCon. Ancillary Sword will be released on October 7th.