Book review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword is the second book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. The First book, Ancillary Justice (which we also reviewed, check it here), received loads of critical praise and won a bunch of awards. These include the most prestigious awards in Science Ficiton. Ann Leckie received not only the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, but also the BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Award. As you might expect, Ancillary Justice’s sequel was highly anticipated.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy

The series is set in a world where gender isn’t part of the vocabulary, where A.I. governed ships control thousands of bodies, and whose Emperor, the Lord of the Radch, besides being a multi-bodied entity herself, a is in conflict with different instances of herself.

In the middle of this secret war is Breq. Formerly known as Justice of Toren, one of the Radch warships, Breq is the sole surviving part of Justice of Toren and in Ancillary Justice we learn that she is out for revenge. Revenge for the destruction of herself (Justice of Toren) and revenge for the murder of Awn Elming, her most beloved officer.

Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

After the events of Ancillary Justice, Breq now finds herself in an akward new position. She is the reluctant ally of one of the warring factions of Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch.  She is given a ship and the rank of Fleet Captian and ordered to keep the peace (and control) the remote system of Athoek. Breq, or Fleet Captain, as she’s mostly referred to in the book, has a bunch of difficulties to deal with in this part of the story. There is the fickle alliance with the Lord of the Radch who is trying to keep some kind of control over the Fleet Captain, even at a distance and the navigation of the plots of the warring factions of Anaander Mianaai.

But mostly, the story covers the difficulties the Fleet Captain encounters with local politics at Athoek Station and the planet below, which was annexed 600 years ago and developed into one of the most important sources for high quality tea, the Radch’s preferred beverage.

The epic war within the Empire is mostly on the background. As in Ancillary Justice the focus is on the characters and their, sometimes difficult, relationships. Especially the friction between Fleet Captian and the locals is interesting. Fleet Captain, the representative of the Radch Empire and the citizens and dignitaries of Athoek Station, the conquered, do not always see eye to eye. Leckie examines what happens when a civilization is pressed into the Radch mold for what is ‘civilized’. Essentially this comes down to “no just act could be improper, no proper act unjust”. As one might expect, knowing our own reality, there are those that grab and control the majority of the power and resources. And there are those without a say and little authority over their own lives.

The bigger picture

The first book was political. Heck, the whole world Ann Leckie has built is a political commentary on our own reality. Ancillary Sword is far more directly (by lack of a better word) critical on the inequality that is now normal in our world. At least, that is what I read. The systems governor and the most powerful families in Athoek (plantation owners!) control everything. When Fleet Captain sees the injustice, for instance in the treatment of the denizens of the Undergarden or the workers on the tea plantations downwell, see decides to act. Conflict ensues.

For me, Ancillart Sword is a study of power, morality and character. And in that it differs from the first book. Ancillary Justice was, to me, more a Science Fiction thriller. It introduces a fantastic world which challenges our common conventions of gender, the color of one’s skin, and the concept of consciousness and humanity. Ancillary Sword, is more character-focused. It deals with the way the inhabitants of this world deal with its conventions. And it’s not all pretty.

The aforementioned character-focused approach in the Imperial Radch series, which is even more present in Ancillary Sword compared to Ancillary Justice, explores the Fleet Captain’s relationships to others. I shouldn’t go to deep here as I don’t want to spoil the really good stuff. But need to mention Tisarwat and Seivarden. Those who already read the book will know exactly what I mean. Those who haven’t: you are in for a treat!

Conclusion

In case you need more convincing that this book is worthwhile, it’s not only me that says it’s great. As the first book, Ancillary Sword has won multiple awards: the BSFA Award and the Locus Award. For a few of the most well-known awards in the Science Fiction landscape, the Hugo and the Nebula Award, Ancillary Sword received a nomination (For Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie won both).

If you haven’t read the first installment of this adventure, read that one first. You can find our review here.

By the way, did you know that the Imperial Radch trilogy was optioned for television shortly after the release of Ancillary Sword? While ‘optioned for television’ doesn’t yet mean that a television adoption is going to happen, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

Are you interested in the third and final part of our Fleet Captains story? You can find our review of the third novel in the Imperal Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy, here.

I hope to see you back here soon!

Paul

About the Author Paul