Ancillary Sword is the second book in Ann Leckie’s “Imperial Radch” trilogy. The first installment, Ancillary Justice, won all of the awards, including a Hugo Award. The first novel is more or less a tale of the lone survivor of a destroyed warship trying to take her revenge upon the corrupt leader that rules the Radch Empire. That leader has had her consciousness spread among thousands of bodies. The survivor is the controlling AI from the warship whose consciousness was, until recently, also spread among thousands of bodies. The result of the revenge scheme is a civil war between rival factions of the Radch leader’s consciousness. This is not a story that summarizes easily.
There are two unique (in my experience) elements to Ancillary Sword. The first is technical; the protagonist and viewpoint character is a person who used to be a starship that was also thousands of people, referred to as “ancillaries.” Much of the story of the first novel was told in flashbacks from when the ship had thousands of sensory inputs, resulting in first person narration that borders on an omniscient viewpoint. The second element is the use of “she” not only as a gender neutral pronoun, but as the only pronoun. The Radch do not have masculine and feminine designations, so Ann Leckie chose to use “she” to refer to all characters, even when the character in question is clearly male.
In Ancillary Sword, the protagonist refers to herself as Justice of Toren (her name when she was a starship), while others most commonly call her Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai. She has been assigned to secure the Athoek system, and she also has the more personal goal of securing the safety of the younger sister of her beloved Lieutenant Awn, who was killed in the first book. In the course of the book, Breq must balance some difficult personalities, uncover conspiracies, and defuse a potential diplomatic incident with an alien race that is capable of wiping out humanity.
Despite the space opera beats, the story is really a rather personal one, and in an unexpected way. The story of the AI that yearns/learns to be human is more of a cliché than a fresh idea at this point, and Breq, thankfully, does not take that path. She is coping with the realities of being limited to a single human body and with the sense of loss that accompanies that limitation. The end result is not her embracing her humanness, but coming to accept that she is going to be much more alone than she was the first couple thousand years of her existence.
In a broader sense, Ancillary Sword also contains some social commentary. The Athoek system consists of a large space station orbiting a planet. The space station has an underground community referred to as the “Undergarden,” where the normal services of society don’t exist, many of the inhabitants are not official citizens, and law enforcement is unfair at best. On the planet’s surface, there are large tea plantations worked by the descendants of a Radch “annexation” (or more accurately, conquest). The Undergarden community could be easily likened to minority communities in the United States, particularly given the use of excessive police force. The tea plantations are so obviously intended to be a version of antebellum slavery that they should be located in Alabama instead of Athoek.
Breq is a cold character with a soft spot for the unnoticed portions of society. Her experience as thousands of ancillary bodies, which were considered disposable, causes her to feel concern for those who are usually ignored. She is not able to fly into Athoek, solve all of their social injustices, and fly back out, content with her good work. But she is able to force those with authority to listen to the voices of the minority communities, which does not make her popular with the privileged class.
If you’re a fan of the first book for its personal story embedded within a larger, epic drama, the subtle yet intense character interactions, and the unique universe creation that nonetheless comments on reality, than you should find the sequel equally interesting. It is probably necessary to read Ancillary Justice to get the full impact of Ancillary Sword; readers who are new to the series can look forward to adventure and politics, but with more realistic consequences than you find in many books. It contains social commentary by acknowledging the difficulties of imperfect societies rather than hammering a specific agenda.
In commenting on these elements of the book, I have overlooked threads from the space opera portion of the plot, left out entire characters with a significant presence in the story, disregarded parallels with the Roman Empire, and omitted my thoughts on Radch gender politics (or lack thereof). This is not a simple story. It is an interesting conversation/thought piece that addresses issues relevant to society while still telling an emotionally impactful, personal story. It is definitely a worthy Hugo nominee.
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