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Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword.jpgWell, woof. Count me as one who thinks this is an even better book than the first in the trilogy, Ancillary Justice, and I really liked Ancillary Justice. That one appealed to me intellectually and told an exciting story, this one did both of those things and then kicked me in the gut in the finale. Woof.

The basic set-up here, which may contain spoilers if you haven't read the first book yet, is that a star-spanning culture called the Radch Empire is ruled by an autocrat who is constituted of multiple cloned bodies who are connected with each other via what I believe is a form of artificial intelligence. Because of the huge distances in space and time that separate the various members of this entity and because of inherent contradictions in its expansionist, imperialist policies, the autocrat is at war with itself. The narrator-protagonist of the two books is an ancillary -- a kind of cyborg soldier who was once part of an AI-driven military spaceship that was destroyed by the autocrat when the ancillary killed one of the autocrat's constituent bodies. The ancillary is the only surviving member of the community of soldiers that once ran the ship. In the first book, the ancillary obtained a weapon with which it hoped to destroy the autocrat. Instead, a civil war broke out, and the ancillary was assigned by one faction of the autocrat to go to an isolated space station and defend it against possible attacks by the other faction of the autocrat. This is where the action of the second book picks up.

In the comments to my review of the first book, grytpype_thynne describes this one as "a story about the implied violence of rigid class structures where there's incredible tension in scenes that basically describe polite rich people serving tea to each other that might spill over into world-shattering mayhem." This is an excellent description. The world-building in these novels is deeply layered, and one of the things that I finally started picking up on in Ancillary Sword is how much of what the protagonist observes is the minute clues about the class structure of the empire. The Radch Empire has conquered and annexed many cultures in its expansion, and like the Roman Empire it has granted citizenship to the annexed peoples. The level of integration of the different conquered peoples varies, and that's part of what creates the tension grytpype_thynne mentions. The protagonist, Breq, is constantly noting accent, for example, and that's because she can tell something about the origins and status of the person she's talking to by what kind of accent they have when they speak the Radch language. The class system is indeed rigidly hierarchical, and even people from the original Radch culture exist in a hierarchy of houses, or families, which has changed over time and is a constant source of jockeying for position and political power. People in the lowest levels of the hierarchy are exploited and oppressed in ways very familiar to anyone who has studied, say, the colonial history of humankind. Indeed, both novels are focused on the injustices, some of them downright murderous, built into the Radch political system.

I read this book (which required me to read the first one as well) because it was one of the non-Puppy novels nominated for the Hugo this year. So it's possible that I only have the Hugos on my mind, but I was struck by how similar this one (but not Ancillary Justice) was to The Goblin Emperor in some aspects. In particular I was struck by how both books were about autocratic empires and about a figure within that polity who tries to help those who are oppressed and exploited. Breq, like Maia in The Goblin Emperor, is constantly shocking even those sympathetic to her with her willingness to ignore the class hierarchy and show consideration for the bottom rung. But Leckie seems to me more realistic about the limits of compassion and kindness than Addison is. What is exemplary about Ancillary Sword is that the question of justice is treated with great complexity. Breq knows she cannot really change the system and cannot really do "good". What she can do is try to find the least-bad approach to complicated problems. As an ancillary she was, in fact, a part of any number of murderous crimes in the service of the empire. She is trying to do right as best as she can, but she is part and parcel of a corrupt and abusive system.

Another thing that the Ancillary books have in common with The Goblin Emperor is a close focus on feelings. Breq was at one time part of an AI that was constantly monitoring the physical manifestations of emotion in all its component members and those of other regular non-ancillary Radch that served on the ship. Breq is now cut off from that level of constant awareness, but is fed quite a bit of similar information from the AI of the ship she's been assigned to as captain. Breq is also an inveterate observer of the physical cues to emotion that body language gives. Thus she is always paying attention to the emotional status of the people immediately around her as well as a few key crew members who are elsewhere (a neat narrative trick that resembles multiple points of view), and we as readers get a constant flood of information about the anger, anxiety, pleasure, misery, uncertainty, pride, suspicion, resentment, love, desire, etc of the characters in the story. This was remarkable enough in a work of high fantasy like The Goblin Emperor, where it mostly served to make the characters more sympathetic, if not simply pathetic, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like it in a work of space opera, let alone military space opera. There was a thrown-off line in Ancillary Justice about how emotion was necessary even for artificial intelligences to make decisions, and Leckie drives home the importance of emotion by the sheer wealth of observation of it on offer. And it doesn't take the place of intellectual analysis either, because Breq is always analyzing the situation from a number of different angles as well, using the emotions of others as clues to what their hidden agendas are.

Well, crap, I've already gone on at much greater length than I wanted to, and I haven't even gotten to Leckie's approach to gender in these books, which I didn't talk about at all in my previous review. The interesting thing is that the Radch don't refer to gender in their language, but this gender neutrality is represented in the text by female words. Everybody is she and her, all parents are mothers, all children are daughters, all siblings are sisters, etc. This is similar to what Delany did in Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, although it's been so long since I read that one that I forget the details how he handled it. Leckie's approach masks the genders of the characters while making us think of them all as female. Very occasionally she reminds us that this isn't true when Breq speaks in a non-Radch language that requires gender specification. These moments, in which Breq has to guess the gender of the person she's addressing (thus implying that the Radch really pay no attention to gender), remind the reader that some of the characters are male, and we mostly don't know which ones. It's a nifty piece of intellectual judo.

I said at the beginning that the reason I liked Ancillary Sword even better than Ancillary Justice is that it "kicked me in the gut in the finale." This ends up being a very romantic story, in the sense that there's a great unleashing of emotion at the climax. I'm not sure I'm capable of describing all the narrative forces at work in this unleashing, but it's related to that abiding sense of incredible tension that grytpype_thynne described. Part of it, too, is that Breq, who has been looking after everybody else all this time, suddenly becomes very emotional and vulnerable herself. There's a burst of heroic action, confessions of guilt, expressions of inconsolable loss, pain, tears, relief, healing, and hugs, all in a welter, and there's a powerful sense of new bonds being formed and old ones being strengthened. For a story about moral complexity and the impossibility of justice, maybe it's a bit too much of a feel-good ending. But it does strike me that Leckie is wrestling with the nightmare of history and perhaps even the concept of original sin (she's very good on the subject of religion), and if she's cheating in the finale it may only be in the sense that the characters are allowed a moment of feeling good about themselves despite the inevitability that the injustice, oppression, and murderous abuse will continue. The problems of this world have not been solved, but we are allowed to feel love and security in a momentary shelter from the storm.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 28th, 2015 06:36 pm (UTC)
I thought it hung together as a novel better than the first but I'm still on the fence about voting for parts of a series in the Best Novel Hugo. I think I tend to agree with Eric Flint's thinking on this.

Thus far I'm tending towards Three Body Problem #1, Goblin Emperor #2, Ancilary Sword #3, No Award #4 - I'm not reading Butcher, it's not my thing anyway, and I am debating if I can be bothered reading the Andersen.
Apr. 28th, 2015 06:41 pm (UTC)
Yes, I feel the Leckie trilogy is basically one book and has already won a Hugo, so won't be voting Sword #1. I haven't read Three-Body Problem yet, and I'm not going to read the two from the Puppies slates. I'll be voting No Award #4 as well.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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