Smaller Tales Can Often Mean Greater Things – A Review of Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

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As a reader, it’s always a question for me how a writer will follow up on something that I found very, incredibly good, especially if I’ve just come off their debut piece—especially true with series. I sometimes worry that, after reading the first book, the next book won’t be quite as good, that it’ll fail all my expectations and I won’t want to pick up the rest of the series afterwards. And the better the first book, the greater my expectations.

Fortunately, not all writers do this. Most of the time, if the sequel is weaker, it’s not so terribly weak that I need to put the series aside altogether. But sometimes, there are writers who actually manage to ramp things up in the second book, who seem to flip some sort of narrative NOS switch and make the story feel bigger, greater, more expansive than it did in the first book. When a writer can accomplish this in their series, it usually means I’m hooked, and will be marking my calendar for their next release.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I was somewhat worried about Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie’s sequel to the award-winning Ancillary Justice, first book in her Imperial Radch series. Ancillary Justice has been lauded here, there, and everywhere for its excellent writing and incredible storyline, and for good reason: it is indeed a remarkable novel, certainly one of the best sci-fi novels currently available. But would Ancillary Sword be equally remarkable? I wanted to read it, of course, because I desperately wanted to know what happened after the end of Ancillary Justice, but would it be as good as the first book? A part of me thought I really shouldn’t be so concerned, because Leckie has proven she is an amazing writer, and therefore can and should be trusted to deliver. But I still worried, at least until I actually had a copy of Ancillary Sword in my hands and could dive into it at last.

Ancillary Sword takes place sometime after the explosive events of Ancillary Justice. Breq, former ancillary of the Justice of Toren and now the sole vessel of the ship’s consciousness after surviving the disaster that destroyed her original form, has learned the devastating truth hiding at the heart of the Radch: Anaander Mianaai, Emperor of the Radch, is at war with herself. This conflict has the potential to tear the entire Empire asunder, and Breq has no choice but to find a way to help the Emperor fight against herself. In line with this, she and Seivarden, a former officer aboard the Justice of Toren and now an ally, are sent to Athoek Station, to ensure the loyalty of the Radch officials there to the Emperor—or at least, the correct Emperor. For this purpose Breq is given the title of fleet captain and command of the ship Mercy of Kalr, whose original captain was executed for treason.

But there are other problems and concerns besides merely checking up on the loyalty of local officials. It quickly becomes clear that all is not well on Athoek and its Station, that something fishy is going on: the Station AI is not quite as happy as it could be, and there’s rumours of abuses and corruption, whispers of blackmail and pilfered wealth. Breq soon comes to realise that if she wants the answers she needs, she’s going to have to get to the bottom of everything—no matter how dark and dirty that bottom might be.

If the world of Ancillary Justice was enormous, reaching from one end of the galaxy to the other, and hopping between past and present and back again, the scope of Ancillary Sword is somewhat smaller. Most of the story is limited to what happens on the Mercy of Kalr, and on Athoek and its associated Station. That might not seem like much room for a story, especially when compared to what happened in Ancillary Justice, but the tale Leckie tells in those settings is equal on every level to the one she told in the first novel.

I would say that two books is too early to judge the overarching theme for a series, but I suppose it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the Imperial Radch focuses, at least in part, on the issues of colonialism and imperialism. The trope of the “galactic empire” is a rather common one in sci-fi, but very few authors really take to the time to get to the bottom of what that really means. Empires are built on conquest, after all, and there is no such thing as “peaceful” conquest. Even in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, though the Culture tries to expand through “peaceful” means, those means are far from harmless, as they often mean the complete and utter destruction of another culture, its uniqueness lost in the embrace of the all-encompassing, uniform Culture (see The Player of Games for an illustration of that within Banks’ own series).

In Ancillary Sword, Leckie spends a majority of the book tackling that issue, almost to the point that the all those concerns about civil war in the Radch and Anaander Mianaai’s split with herself is put on the back burner. Ancillary Sword presents the darker side of empire: the prejudice, the power plays, and oppression and corruption in all its forms. Some people who are not as familiar with history (or prefer to deny it) might be surprised to see this sort of thing portrayed, but any reader who comes from a country with a long history of colonisation, and which continues to struggle with its past as a colony, will recognise the kinds of oppression Leckie portrays. Indeed, some might read the novel and wonder if Leckie took a leaf right out of their own history books (where such history books do not hush up or mask the history, of course).

There is, in particular, a moment in the novel’s latter third, approaching the climax, that practically electrified me as I was reading it. Breq is on the planet Athoek, staying at the estate of a tea plantation owner, and has already noted the extremely prejudiced and oppressive practices of the estate’s owner, to say nothing of the way the estate owner’s daughter takes advantage of the workers for her own sadistic pleasure (which include rape, though that is never outwardly stated, merely suggested).

At any rate, Breq witnesses an attempted bombing against one of the guests, and goes out to find the culprit, wishing to learn for herself what is truly going on—and, in her own way, to deliver what she thinks is true justice, knowing that the bomber will not receive anything of the like from the plantation owner and the officials of Athoek. While talking to the bomber, said bomber delivers one of the finest indictments of colonialism and imperialism I have read in a long while:

”You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilization. And what is civilization, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?”

As someone from a country with a long and fraught history of colonialism, this hit me right in the gut, because that is precisely what colonialism and imperialism are: destruction and theft for which the victims must be grateful. I have read long (and some rather boring) books that treat on this subject at length, but I loved reading it all wrapped up in one brutally honest statement. I appreciate the fact that Leckie appears to have a relatively fine understanding of this sort of sentiment, which underscores not just historical rebellions, but current ones as well.

Despite this focus on the problems of colonialism and imperialism, Leckie does not lose sight of the greater picture, nor the emotional heart that made Breq such an interesting character in the first place. In this book, Breq finally meets Lieutenant Awn’s sister, thus allowing her to fulfil the promise she made in the first book. It also deals more deeply with what it means to be an ancillary, as illustrated by both Breq’s relationship with Mercy of Kalr and Athoek Station’s AI, as well as in the case of Lieutenant Tisarwat. And though the story about the socio-political concerns of Athoek are wrapped up in a somewhat-satisfactory manner, Leckie naturally deepens the plot: the question of what lies beyond the Ghost Gate, for instance, and what might happen in the wake of the murder of the Presger ambassador.

Overall, Ancillary Sword is in many ways the best kind of sequel: one that has its own story, that is its own self-contained (insofar as that can be) world, but still pushes the overall plot of the series forward. More importantly, though the central plot of this novel feels “small”, confined as it is to a small set of locations, it does not in any way make its impact smaller or less important. It delves into vital questions about empires and colonialism that are still being asked today, not only in the context of history lessons, but in the context of current, ongoing conflicts all around the world. Despite that, it lays the groundwork for what promises to be an amazing (and far less quiet) third book. And I must say, I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

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2 thoughts on “Smaller Tales Can Often Mean Greater Things – A Review of Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

    1. I hope you find it as fun as the first! Some reviewers have commented that this felt a bit slower than the first, and think of this as a negative, but I think of it as something of a positive, actually :).

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