Review of Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Fiction Reviews

Ancillary Sword

(2014) Ann Leckie, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 356pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50241-0


Ancillary Sword is the second part of the wide-screen space opera 'Ancillary' trilogy that began with Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Justice itself was met with considerable aclaim within the SF community winning a Hugo Award, the 2014 Clarke Award, the Nebula Award for 'Best Novel', the Locus Award for 'Best Debut' and not least the winner of the 2014 BSFA Award for 'Best Novel'.

Ancillary Sword begins where Ancillary Justice left off. Because this is the continuation of the same story, it is important to read Ancillary Justice first. And, do not continue with this review unless you have as what follows has spoilers…

OK, you are still with me.

Breq (former body ancillary of a warship now destroyed and carrying the remnants of its artificial intelligence [AI] mind) has survived the encounter with two of the millennia year-old clone-collective that rules of Radch Empire, Anaander Mianaai. That the Anaander Mianaai clone-collective is split with one faction at war with the rest is a problem for the Radch as the collective as a whole rules and so siding with any faction is simultaneously an act of loyalty and also of treachery. Breq, having confronted Anaander Mianaai (one of one of the factions) and lived, Anaander Mianaai (another of the other faction) adopts Breq into the Mianaai family and so Breq becomes Breq Mianaai. That the Radch ruler Anaander Mianaai is an ancient clone collective, constantly renewing itself over the millennia, and Breq is old too and the sole survivor of an AI coordinated human collective ship crew, means that the two have something in common in that both belong (or belonged) to collectives, it is just that Anaander Mianaai is made up of individuals of the same person whereas Breq was the same warship AI sentience imposed on formerly many mindless human bodies but now just the one called Breq.

Anaander Mianaai gives Breq Mianaai a ship, the 'Mercy of Kalr' and so now we have Breq who is the remains of a ship AI in human form now captaining a ship which has its own AI.

Anaander Mianaai also gives Breq a mission to go to the Athoek station that supervises a tea-growing system two gates away to stop the Mianaai-war-with-Mianaai from spreading. (Though no word is given as to which Mianaai is part of the rightful ruler and which a treasonous traitor Mianaai but we do know that the Radch uneasy peace with the powerful alien Presger is at the heart of all this top-echelon power-politics.)

Breq is also keen to go to Athoek as the sister of Lieutenant Awn is a horticulturalist on Athoek station; and you will recall that Breq (when a fully integrated ship ancillary (or another ancillary thereof)) unlawfully killed Lieutenant Awn many years ago; 'unwittingly' because the ruling Anaander Mianaai clone-collective was beginning to split and the Anaander Mianaai collective was trying to keep its splitting a secret from itself...

Right, now you will only have followed all that if you had read Ancillary Justice. What we get with Ancillary Sword is the journey to Athoek station during which Breq has to come to terms with her new relationship as a former ship AI now a human captain of a ship itself run by an AI, and then what follows, the bulk of the novel, learning the politics of the Athoek station and the planetary system it rules.

Along the way we learn a little more about the alien Presger through an all too brief encounter with a human-grown and Presger-raised, Presger translator. We also learn of the main economic work in the Athoek station planetary system that grows a particularly fine tea: the Radch drink tea with almost the refinement of the Japanese and the gusto of the British. And we learn that something may have been going on that relates to the Anaander Mianaai split so that Anaander Mianaai sending Breq on this mission wasn't entirely as 'routine' as it first seemed. There are machinations within machinations.

Ancillary Sword is a worthy follow-up to Ancillary Justice, and while the novel does hold the reader's attention it is not quite as action-bound nor quite as full of sense-of-wonder as the first book: there is sensawunda but much of it is what we had before. Frustratingly, we get nowhere with explaining this gender blindness business: Breq as a former ship AI cannot discern gender and yet can easily read people's emotions and motivations as well as speedily react from observing the tiniest twitch. I do sincerely hope that this gender blindness thing has some meaningful rationale and not turn out to be some ploy in response to a currently politically correct literary fad, as that would be a cheap shot smacking of tokenism. We will see.

So what we end up with is a slightly less rich, though decidely holding its own, mid-trilogy novel that allows us to catch our breath yet hold our attention while we await for the trilogy's climactic novel Ancillary Mercy. If this final instalment is up to the standard of the first book then the 'Ancillary' books could end up being a landmark, wide-screen space opera SF trilogy for the early 21st century much as Asimov's 'Foundation' was for the 1950s. Anne Leckie herself has indicted while Breq will only appear in this trilogy but that there will be more Radch books it could be looking at something of the standing that Niven's 'Known Space' had in the 1970s or Banks' 'Culture' had in the decade before and after the turn of millennium albeit with a little more politics and a little less hard SF. We will see and, without doubt, we will be certainly entertained as we find out.

Jonathan Cowie

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