Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review - Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie


Short review: Breq is now a citizen of the Radch, and a fleet captain given command of a starship. She goes seeking to atone for her actions as the Justice of Toren, but even with official power, the world is filled with vipers and things are never easy.

Haiku
Now a fleet captain
In command of a mercy
Seeking redemption

Full review: Ancillary Sword is the sequel to the Nebula-, Hugo-, Locus-, and Clarke- Award winning novel Ancillary Justice, and picks up right where the first left off with the Radch Empire in chaos following the revelation of the internecine rivalries between the warring faction that have divided its multiple bodied ruler Anaander Mianaai. Unlike the first novel, which was a tale of revenge with an unexpected twist, Ancillary Sword is a more character driven story about justice, identity, and forgiveness.

I approached this novel with some slight trepidation. Many novels that follow after a very heavily decorated novel turn out to be something of a disappointment. Further, Ancillary Sword is Anne Leckie's second novel, and many second books from an author suffer from the "Sophomore slump". Finally, many second installments in a trilogy are somewhat less than interesting, as they often have neither a particularly well-defined beginning to a story, nor a satisfying resolution - serving merely as a placeholder between other, better novels. Fortunately, Leckie managed to avoid all of these potential pitfalls, and turned out a novel that is just as good, although markedly different from, Ancillary Justice.

In the opening pages of the book Breq, freshly made into both a citizen of the Radch and a member of Anaander Mianaai's own family, is also handed the title of fleet captain and given command of the Mercy of Kalr. After some fairly brief preparations Breq is sent, at her own request, to check on Athoek - ostensibly because that system, like the rest of the Radch, had been cut off from outside traffic since the jump gates had been closed at Anaander Mianaai's order in the closing pages of Ancillary Justice. But Breq has other motives for wanting to go to Athoek, as it is where Basnaaid Elming, the younger sister of Lieutenant Awn, is living, and Breq wants to make amends for her unwilling but instrumental role in Awn's death.

It is during these preparations and subsequent voyage that the underlying themes of the novel begin to take shape. Breq is a former ancillary - actually, a former ship named Justice of Toren now reduced to a single ancillary - commanding a ship crewed entirely by humans. But apart from the handful of officers under her command, all of Breq's crew not only expects to be treated as ancillaries, we are told that they would be offended if they were not. At the same time, Breq spends much of the novel careful to occlude her status as a former ancillary, as she correctly fears that such a revelation would destroy her credibility and reduce her status to that of a pariah, no matter what military rank or family name she holds. In short, the entire novel is study in contradictions, as, among other events, humans behave like ancillaries, and ancillaries behave like humans.

The story of Tisarwat, the "baby lieutenant" placed in Breq's crew at Mianaai's insistence, highlights the most glaring contradictions in the Radch. Fairly early in the story Breq suspects, and then confirms that Tisarwat is more than she seems, and then Breq sets about neutralizing the potential interference that the lieutenant could engage in. But it drives home the fact that the Radch is a society that considers ancillaries to be inferior creatures that is, ironically, ruled over by an individual collective that is comprised, essentially, of ancillaries. Tisarwat's experience also seems to make her the one individual in the book who could empathize to some degree with Breq, as she also becomes an individual who was formerly just a tiny part of a collective. The question that sits in the middle of the metaphorical room is, exactly who is Tisarwat after she is made into a single individual again. We are told that the process of changing her into a cog in Mianaai's consciousness irrevocably destroyed the person that Tisarwat was, so when the implants that made her part of it are removed, who is left? Is she still Anaander Mianaai, just a version that isn't connected to the collective consciousness? If she is, that poses some rather interesting questions that won't be resolved until she comes into contact with the rest of herself again. Or is Tisarwat some new personality that grew in the blank slate that was left when Mianaai was removed? That would pose another, very different set of interesting questions. But the questions raised by the issue of Tisarwat's identity reflect back on Breq: As a fragmentary remnant that was once part of the Justice of Toren, who is Breq now? She is a citizen of the Radch as a result of Miaanai's fiat, but she is clearly not what she was when she was a ship, and even more clearly isn't what she was before she was a ship. As with so many questions posed by the book, this one is left unresolved, but left unresolved in the best possible way.

When the Mercy of Kalr reaches Athoek, Breq is immediately confronted by the Sword of Atagaris commanded by Captain Hentys, who, in a fit of paranoia, threatens to destroy Breq's ship before backing down and acknowledging Breq's superior authority. The Sword of Atagaris is not only a larger, more heavily armed ship, it is crewed by ancillaries, who we are repeatedly told are simply better in combat than a human could ever hope to be. And this highlights the fact that when Breq walks into the viper's nest of local politics, she cannot simply force her will upon others, but instead has to engage in a delicate political dance in which she must assert her authority, but must do so from a position of relative weakness. Unlike in Ancillary Justice, where Breq could engage in a single-minded focus on her objective regardless of the consequences to herself, others, or the system she inhabited, in Ancillary Sword she has been co-opted into the system and must work within its structure, with the benefits of title and imperial backing, but with the constraint of being bound into the Radch system of justice, propriety, and benefit.

By making Breq an ancillary to start with, Leckie positioned the character as someone who is both an expert on, and outsider to, Radch culture. This means that even though the Radchai themselves don't see the inherent contradictions in their forthright belief that "nothing which is beneficial can be unjust, and nothing that is just can be improper", Breq does, and in many cases is able to see the root causes of problems that the various citizens of the Rach simply do not. So when Breq arrives at Athoek's space station, she takes up residence not in the governor's palace, but in the "Undergarden", a technically off-limits region directly below the space station's garden and fish pond where members of the less fortunate local populace of Valskaayans and Samirends, both exploited by the Radchai as cheap labor, make their homes. Once there, she begins to untangle to spider web of interconnected hatreds, obligations, and intrigues that have made the system a hotbed of unrest and paranoia with a dash of criminality thrown in.

The story, framed as interconnected mysteries serves mostly as a framing device to explore and expand upon Radchai culture - highlighting the inherent inequalities in a society that claims to be both just and proper. Station Administrator Celar is blind to the nature of the relationship between her daughter Piat and Raughd, the daughter of the influential and wealth Fosyf, because noticing the issues presented would mean admitting to impropriety. Conversely, it is almost routine to blame Sirix Odela, a Samirend, for a crime without even checking to see if there is any evidence against her - because it would be improper to inquire as to whether any of the influential citizens of the Radch had done what Sirix is accused of. And no one raises questions about the behavior of Raughd towards the Valskaayan laborers on her mother's farm, because that would create an uncomfortable situation, as would confronting the question of why the Valskaayans are kept in their disadvantaged state by the wealthy citizenry of Athoek. And on and on. All of Athoek is engaged in a careful dance in which no one raises uncomfortable questions, because that would mean admitting that their society is not proper, or just, or even beneficial to any but a select few.

Ancillary Sword is a coming of age tale, a quest for redemption, and an exploration of the nature of power and privilege, all wrapped together in a fairly straightforward mystery story that keeps things moving sufficiently quickly to prevent the narrative from getting bogged down. In her second novel Leckie has done an admirable job of expanding upon the story and universe presented in Ancillary Justice while managing to neatly avoid simply repeating the first book, while at the same time building something recognizable upon the foundations laid by the previous volume. The book is packed with so many layers of interaction - as humans, ships and ancillaries relate to one another, and at times try to emulate one another. As citizens of the Radch and their conquered, but technically legally equal servants deal with their clashing cultures. As humans try to comprehend the inscrutable aliens that they fear, even though those aliens are represented by a human face. As Breq tries to find forgiveness from an individual she has never met and isn't feeling particularly forgiving. In each case characters are presented with others who challenge everything they hold to be true, and the results are often not particularly pretty, but they are always telling. In the end, while the story presented is resolved, the larger issues of the Radch itself are still unsettled, leaving the reader both satisfied at the end of the book and looking forward to the next installment.

Previous book in the series: Ancillary Justice
Subsequent Book in the Series Ancillary Mercy

2014 Locus Award Winner for Best Science Fiction Novel: Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Science Fiction Novel

2015 Hugo Award Nominees
2015 Locus Award Nominees
2015 Nebula Award Nominees

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