Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

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5  out of 5 startling stars

No sophomore slump for Ms. Leckie. This was amazing. I have been trying to be a lot more picky about what gets a 5 star rating – it’s got to be more than a book I love, it has to be something that makes me have a thought in my head – and this one had a lot of the brain matter responding. I am unashamedly in love with this – I want to talk about it to everyone I know and I can’t stop thinking about it. This review has spoilers for the first book – but come on, you shouldn’t be reading a review for book 2 if you haven’t read book 1.

This continues on with Breq the ancillary, now made Fleet Captain and sent to Athoeki, a system that was annexed more than 600 years ago. (warning – I’m gonna be spelling this crazy stuff via memory, so a lot of these words might not be spelled right.) Because of what happened at the end of the last book, the emperor destroying some gates (ways to leap huge distances) and the lack of communication from the rest of the empire, Athoeki is rife with tension. When Breq and her ship appear, the Radchaai ship stationed there almost attacks her. This pretty much sets the stage for what will happen: that tense misunderstanding continues to unravel and accumulate through the plot. Intrigues, twists, turns, people and things who aren’t what they appear. Not to mention: Breq has no official record of military service, she comes in and tells the people running the station/planet they can’t make a gate or use the gate that is functioning. So there is a lot of mistrust. Besides the regular intrigue and the constant jockeying for position that is as natural to Radchaai as breathing, there are some incredibly interesting characters.

First of all is Breq herself. I just love her. She’s one of my favorite characters. I have not forgotten the empathy I built up for her in the last book. After what she went through (being an ancillary, being forced to kill her lieutenant, who she loved, and then losing her ship and all her other ancillaries) I love how even-keeled she is, how she always struggles to do what is right for the people. She was trying, very hard, to hate the Radchaai in the last book, but her empathy for the people, especially those annexed and treated as an undesirable caste or called “uncivilized” – I just love it. She does what is right, regardless of a person’s caste or station. The Radchaai insist they are civilized- “Radchaai” means citizen. They believe the empire is a bastion of justice and peace but yet the upper classes and the military treat anyone who is poor like trash – as if they are poor on purpose, rather than oppressed and given no hope of advancement. I just find it ironic it is the ancillary, a person made almost into a machine, who will fight for justice for everyone, and has empathy for the lowest of the low.

Then, in a small role, is Five. The former captain of Breq’s ship insisted all the soldiers on the ship act like they were ancillaries. Five takes great pride in doing this, and is a source of a lot of comedic moments. She is unaware her captain used to be an ancillary, so you are often biting the inside of your cheek as Breq deals with her. The most fascinating is probably Translator Dlique. She’s a foil against the rest of the Radch. She was “bred” by the alien Presger to go and deal with other human civilizations. Let’s just say the Presger are not very good at teaching humans how to be human and translators are notoriously weird. She has no filter or patience for the stiff etiquette of human interaction and prefers to predict what will happen. “I will say hello and you will bow and ask how I am” etc., rather than actually going through the motions. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air.

Breq and her ship Mercy of Kalr have been sent to the Athoeki system to maintain order. It seems an out of the way place that couldn’t possibly be of importance to the dangers facing the Radchaai – it’s mostly famous for its tea production. However, things don’t look right from the get go. There are a few gates that are still working, but the Lord of the Radch has commanded no traveling between systems. This means a lot of ships are stranded. There is a gate that supposedly leads to nowhere, a ghost gate that superstition says is haunted. Breq also has doubts about her baby lieutenant, Tisarwat, just 17 and sent at the Lord of the Radch’s insistence. It’s really an amazing bunch of plot twists.

This book also explained what I didn’t understand at the end of the last one: I had only the vaguest idea of what was going on, beyond the explosions and excitement. The confusion was because the leader of the Radchaai, who is a great mass of clones spread across the universe has had a schism in her personality and parts of her (individual ancillaries/clones) have been fighting the rest of her for a long time. The problem is this – it is not a matter of choosing sides, because for the Radchaai, both parts, both contestants in this battle are the emperor – to obey one or the other is to commit treason against the other, so how do you choose sides? There is no side to choose. Yet when the emperor stands before you and commands you, you can’t disobey her, because that is treason. This is what was confusing me so much in the last book and was made much plainer in this one.

This world also has a religion – so rare in sci fi, and an incredibly complex social structure and etiquette. This is one drawback. It’s not bad that the world is so amazingly rich, but every movement, facial expression, tone of voice and hand gesture must be explained, to show how the person speaking/acting/whatevering is acting within that rigid social structure: are they dissing a person of a lesser social caste, showing respect, showing disrespect, being rude, flirting, whatever. The last book focused a lot on jewelry and makeup, which is also part of the social structure, but it tends to drown you in minutia. This time those things were only mentioned it when it was important.

The other thing I had trouble with in the first book was the single-gender pronoun, as the Radchaai don’t have gender specific pronouns. Everyone, as far as Breq is concerned is a “she.” In the last book, I had trouble figuring out who was what gender – as there were one or two times that Breq told us “I know this person identified as male” and pointed out a lot of times that she didn’t know what gender she was addressing (you have to know this if you are speaking a language that does have gender specific pronouns and modifiers). Then I realize… it doesn’t matter. Gender doesn’t matter. There was a lot of sexual politics going on, and bless my hetero heart, I am wired to see sexual partners as opposite sex – but this time, as she was only with Radchaai except for one encounter with Valskaayans on the planet, Breq no longer pointed out difficulty in differentiating gender, that wasn’t a problem- everyone was a she, a sister, or a daughter. He, brother, son simply isn’t used. And so I saw everyone as female, regardless of couplings. And it was great. It really made me think about how heteronormative we are brainwashed to be… and how very unimportant it is when it’s stripped away. Maybe myself and the author, females who daily hear how women are wrecking the sci fi genre, should stand up on a mountaintop and give the double finger to all the dudebros saying that. Because this story is incredibly rich, has an amazingly built world, is emotionally layered, has all the super cool sci fi gadgets and ships and planets and chases and explosions– it’s got all the elements and it’s drenched in the feminine pronoun, in rich themes and lots of symbolism. It’s genre fiction that has the depth and breadth of literary fiction but is incredibly accessible. I loved it. I’m so glad I read it. And you should read it, too.

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