That wasn’t what I got. It was a very personal story, and I’m pretty happy with that.
Ancillary Sword is the second book in the Imperial Radch series. The first is Ancillary Justice, which I haven't read. Some reviewers have compared this series to the C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series because Leckie is all about the personal.
Ancillary Sword is a space opera, just not what some people might think a space opera should be. It was very personal, not far flung, and in some ways reminded me of Iain Banks' Matter (in his Culture series.)
Ancillary Sword made my mind stretch. And it’s not because of the dominate use of the feminine pronoun. (Dudes, I cut my teen SF reading teeth on Ursula K. Le Guin's gender bending stories.)
It made my mind stretch because the protagonist Breq is trying to live ethically and justly in an unethical and unjust world, and she’s not perfect but she does care about doing the right thing
The ships are all under orders from the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, who is basically immortal because her consciousness is downloaded into clones. So she's 3,000 years old and totally manifest destiny expansion-hungry person . And like most power-hungry or expansion-hungry types, she's riding a hungry tiger and can't get off. She has thousands of copies of herself and some of her identities that are at war with each other.
We learn that Anaander Mianaai internal conflict goes back 1,000 years to a really atrocious decision to exterminate an entire race of beings that one of her identities made and that identity refuses to that she was horribly wrong.
Side notes: Political science buffs: Niccolò Machiavelli was right; politics is just dysfunctional family dynamics. And feminists are right; politics is personal. And in case you didn't know it, empires really are horrible entities, especially run by expansionist, paranoid immortal people who don't even get along with themselves.
Back to the Radch: The Radch sends its AI-bearing warships called Justices, Mercies, (you get the picture) to different civilizations and “civilizes” them. Yeah, let that sink in. Think the Romans but not adopting local customs. Think Europeans treatment of indigenous peoples, except without the boarding schools.
Are you angry? You should be. This is an unjust world. Might equals right or the Radch would say some crap about justice and propriety. (It made me appreciate my work as a labor group's shop steward, public records and other benefits of our imperfect democracy.) I haven't told you about the ancillaries yet. Wait, I'll get there.
There’s benefits to Radch civilization, in theory. Everyone gets food, shelter, clothing, and a job and the opportunity to take tests and get a job that’s hopefully better than whatever situation they grow up in. Except there’s this gentry upper class and many of them (at least the ones I saw) are freaking corrupt or stuck in a rut and can’t see past their well-bred noses. There’s also the narrow-minded bumblers who shoot first (or have the ship shoot first) and ask questions later. One of these gentry runs a tea plantation like a company town. I'm not even getting into the details of the whole empire-building and stomping over cultures with jackboots.
And then there’s the ancillaries. You take a person, well technically not a person because it was a not-a-person from one of those uncivilized cultures put them in cryro, put in tech in their brain to connect the ship or the Lord of the Radch and totally burn out their personality.
Think Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon but unlike Morgan's world of cortical stacks, that body the ancillary is in never gets to be who it started out as. Because that person wasn't a person, just an uncivilized savage that the Radch conquered 100 or 600 years ago. Makes me angry and I hope it makes you mad.
Yes, the Radch is one seriously messed up universe. (Please note, I am not using my power words. I am thinking my power words because what the Radch does to other cultures and to individuals.
Are you angrier? Yeah. This society is messed up.
Basically the Lord of the Radch is like bacteria. She’s everywhere and sometimes she makes this work (sort of like the bacteria in your gut) but most of the time her empire building worldview is just bacteria that the "civilized" (conquered if you're not in Radch double speak) that the conquered people's live with.
There’s no one to hold the powerful accountable for what they do to the powerless.
The Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, is too busy with her little political games and the upper crust is too busy feather their nests.
To save this universe, we need to Jimmy Carter and see if he open up a can of Nobel-worthy peace. We also need a futuristic Mother Jones to do some grassroots organizing. Then we need a whole bunch of work with these societies about sharing and ethics and other values that make the world a better place.
OK so now you know the Radch is a heck of a messed up place to live.
Ann Leckie's incredible world building is one of the things that makes Ancillary Sword so freaking amazing and it makes you think and stretch your brain about what you know about power, the use of power and what keeps politically powerful people acting appropriately.
Like many SF fans, I love messed up universes because the characters can try to set them right. (I would not want to live the Radch universe and if I did, I'd be running the underground newspaper, raising the rabble and organizing the unions.) As fiction, what an awesome playground for the mind!
Now for Ancillary Sword. The novel starts as a quest of honor and frankly blood debt, though the protagonist wouldn't think that.
Breq is given a title Fleet Admiral and a ship and told to go protect Athoek Station, which she does because on that station lives the sister of one of Breq's deceased officers.
In Ancillary Justice (and we learn at the end of Ancillary Sword) Breq used to be a ship, an AI as it were, with thousands of ancillaries (remember uncivilized people the ship had been downloaded into.) As Justice of Toren, Breq could also see through the eyes of her crew and her ancillaries . This is the SF furniture that makes this setting so freaking fascinating.)
And Breq as the ship Justice of Toren was ordered to kill Lieutenant Awn, a crew member she cared deeply for. Awn had discovered that the lord of the Radch was at war with herself.
Anaander Mianaai (or some version of her) ordered Justice of Toren to kill Awn, which the ship did and then promptly attacked Anaander Mianaai. As a result Justice of Toren was destroyed, leaving only the ancillary that became Breq. (Ancillary Justice is about Breq’s quest for revenge. This is not the solve Pi computer problem. This is freaking awesome!)
Needless to say, Breq’s perspective about ancillaries and Anaander Mianaai changed dramatically. However, Breq has a truce or alliance of sorts with one version of the Lord of the Radch gives her Mercy of Kalr and has her go to Athoek Station and Breq sees it as a chance to protect Awn's sister.
Of course there’s other things happening at Athoek, including the Radch’s own issues caused by the lord waring with herself, which is another seriously cool concept.
Things don’t go well. (That’s why SF fans enjoy space opera!)
First on the journey to Athoek, Breq realizes that Anaander Mianaai coopted a “baby lieutenant” a 17-year-old named Tisarwat by inserting hardware and burning out a portion of Tisarwat’s personality and overlaying her own. Breq gets Medic to destroy the illegal hardware and the result is Anaander Mianaai in a 17-year-old’s body who is the lowest officer on the ship. So adolescent hormones and burning out the connection to the lord of the Radch and other things make for an interesting time with a teen. (I told you this universe is messed up.)
The station is one unhappy AI who doesn't share things it should. The station’s Under Garden is broken and no one is supposed to be there but they are and it's not quite class warfare. There’s corruption and folks who aren’t inspecting things they should be. There’s dating violence that’s being swept under the rug. There’s a bumbling captain of another ship. There’s a corrupt tea grower and her bullying and worse heir. There’s a mystery of antiques appearing where they shouldn’t and rumors of human trafficking. There’s the human translator of the alien Presger who ends up dead because of bumbling captain and because of the bullying heir.
Basically, Ancillary Sword is a who-done-it meets drawing room drama set a space station and then a planet and then back on the station. There’s a ton of red herrings. Leckie's got a lot of plot and character balls in the air and does a fine job of juggling them. There’s times where the plot seems like it’s going down dead ends but then it pulls itself back and you see it wasn’t a dead end. Leckie also has laid down a lot of gold nuggets that I hope will play themselves out in the final book.
Tisarwat grows as a person. Seivarden (who has issues from book 1 that I won’t get into because you want to read the first book, right?) has a really awesome almost Han Solo moment near the end. And Seivarden’s dialog at that point was Leckie totally tipping the hat to a Gene Roddenbury character moment.
Things I would quibble over. Breq doesn't make enough mistakes. I need her to miscalculate a bit. Breq’s character journey is too subtle. Yes, she’s moving toward being more human, not a ship. Too much introspection and not enough sharing what’s going on with her second in command. Seivarden has problems but she’s proven reliable and willing to follow Breq. Breq needs to bring her in and share her thoughts.
There’s a point where Breq attacks the circular logic of Radch upper crust culture. Basically, she points out what someone thinks is proper and just is only proper and just for the powerful and if someone is proper and just then they can’t be accused of the bad things they are doing and how this logic and the logic of that person is too-upper class to do nasty things to others is messed up.
While Breq admits that she can’t fix all the injustices done to characters and cultures in the book, she has started to crack open the problems with the unjust and unethical world of the Radch. I want to see more of that. I want to see why Breq has made the decision she has made to operate in the Radch and what she thinks she gets and gives up by being loyal to a really messed up society.
I want to see her as an agent of change, not merely bringing the lord’s split personality back together or eliminating the lord and the upper crust as the societal virus they are but be an agent for chance that acts what is ethical and just and how should people and AIs be treated.
So with Ancillary Sword, I've got three of five novels nominated for the Hugo read.
I read Jim Butcher's Skin Game when it came out and reviewed Cixin Liu's (and translator Ken Liu's) The Three Body Problem a few weeks ago on Facebook.
I may write about Skin Game at some point. It’s a great caper and lots of fun and I love the Harry Dresden Files. But Skin Game didn’t stretch me or wow me as much as Butcher's Ghost Story or Changes did. That may be unfair but an enjoyable lark doesn't mean it should get the rocket statue.
At this point Ancillary Sword is stacking higher than The Three Body Problem and Skin Game in my mind because Ancillary Sword is just better written and Lecke has a greater command when it comes to writing.
I’ve got Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars on my coffee table. But first I’m going to finish as many of the graphic novels I can before I take on that monstrously think book.
FYI, Ancillary Justice is on my TBR pile. (I keep starting it and have to put it down because of reading YA for the day job. I'm getting it audio so it will be my workout book.