I wonder if the book even needs an introduction. Ancillary Justice didn’t exactly fly under everyone’s radar when it came out. It was a glorious mindfuck that built momentum with review after review. Science Fiction at its finest; the ancillary concept, a new take on immortality, and a time jumping narrative that forced a reader to stay sharp to reap the rewards. And oh ya, ‘the gender thing.’
I have no doubt that the way Leckie forced a look at gender perceptions played a large part in the hype of the Ancillary Justice. It was new and exciting and if not completely unique then certainly still fresh. Like so many others I fell for the trap of trying to guess the gender on certain characters despite it mattering not a single iota to the actual narrative; a habit I had to re-break myself of yet again with Ancillary Sword. A society which had dropped gender differentiations within speech was cool enough; watching someone from said society confronted with a culture that still finds the distinctions important was all the better.
But make no mistake; Ancillary Justice was no one trick pony. The main character used to be a starship after all; sentient but built to serve. The leader of this unique culture has bodies sharing a mind all over the galaxy’s reach; immortality in hive mind rather than body. And perhaps coolest of all was a unique sort of madness that could only happen in the Radchaii space. And it is with these aspects that I can finally talk about Ancillary Sword rather than its predecessor.
So where did Leckie go with Ancillary Sword? We get a smaller scale, a more linear plot, and deal very little with the overriding threat of Miannaai’s split leadership styles. Instead Breq, formally a Justice sized warship with thousands of ancillaries but now a single body and mind, finds herself captain of small ship off to secure a single planet. While her purpose is simply to prepare for the civil war at hand she is dragged into the cultural battle that has long escaped the emperor’s attention.
I was worried that with the various intricacies of the Radch culture established the series would stall with the need for direction. Gender conventions being thrown out the window and watching a scene from seven sets of the same eyes can carry one book but wouldn’t have kept my interest twice. Those worries are happily put aside; the dynamics being fully ingrained in my mind allowed the series to move on with its new story. In short the big ideas of this sci-fi world have been established; now the series can focus on the little ones.
How is this done? A character based novel with political and cultural implications. Breq finds a world that doesn’t really live up to the cultural ideal that Radch civilization is supposed to live by. She ingrains herself with the most powerful by default; taking a name that forces political consideration. But she takes quarters outside the reach of the station that acts as the civilized hub (more than once we are reminded that the world for civilization is the same as Radchaii, the two are tied in the mind of Radch). A tale of expansion, occupation and resistance, and eventual submission is in the background of this planet; the inevitable corruption and those who fall through the cracks catch Breq’s imagination and time.
I for one enjoyed this change of direction. This series could go as far as Leckie wants to take it; a Banksian ‘Culture’ vibe has been established even as the meta-plotline fades to the background. While the Emperor’s Civil war is woven into the narrative at various points it is not the main thrust of the novel. The book could almost, but not quite, work as a stand along because of this.
Another very strong outing and a series I continue to be excited about. I look forward to seeing where this series goes from here.
Copy for review provided by publisher.