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Ancillary Sword: SEQUEL TO THE HUGO, NEBULA AND ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD-WINNING ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Imperial Radch) Paperback – 7 Oct 2014
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Leckie proves she's no mere flash in the pan with this follow-up to her multiple-award-winning debut space opera, Ancillary Justice (Kirkus Reviews)
So good, and so unexpected - at once a first-rate space opera and the best science fictional exploration of gender since The Left Hand of Darkness. (Weekend Herald)
Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, the debut which is the only novel to ever win the Hugo, the Nebula and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.See all Product description
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Ancillary Justice was released in 2013 and won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards the following year. A fine space opera novel which contained thematic musings on identity, consciousness and pre-existing biases, it was a striking debut, if one that was slightly overrated.
Being a success, of course the novel turned out to be the start of a trilogy. This is where things start to go wrong for Ancillary Sword. The Imperial Radch trilogy is what can be called a "fake trilogy", where Part 1 is self-contained (to some extent) to avoid too many unresolved plotlines if sales tank, whilst the remaining two parts form a much more closely-linked duology. The original Star Wars trilogy is a good example of that, and it's a reasonably common set-up in science fiction and fantasy which can work quite well (and arguably is better than "proper" trilogies with a single big story, where often the middle book feels surplus to requirements). However, it doesn't really work with Ancillary Sword.
This is a book which has very bizarre pacing. The entire novel, which is only 340 pages long in paperback, is laid back, chilled out, almost languorous. Breq travels on her starship to Athoek and meets lots of people and is nice to them, whilst carrying out observations of them from her unique perspective (a starship AI living in a single human body). The other characters are a mixture of interesting and bland, but the novel stubbornly refuses to engage in anything really approaching a plot or giving them anything interesting to do. A representative of an overwhelmingly powerful alien race is murdered, but this has no consequence (in this novel anyway). There's a lot of politicking and capital-building, both by Breq and her subordinates, and some of this is addressed in the novel but a lot of it isn't. At one point we learn of a mysterious "ghost gate" leading to an unknown star system where Breq suspects something is going on. She resolutely fails to follow up on this lead.
Ancillary Sword, it soon turns out, is almost nothing but set-up and pipe-laying for Ancillary Mercy, the third and concluding volume in the series. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is an issue when the book denudes itself of its own identity and storyline to benefit the later book in the series.
What the book does do quite well is character development, with Leckie also cleverly inverting the usual cliches of "AI wanting to be human" stories by having an AI become human and resolutely dislike the experience. By the end of the book Breq knows where she stands with regards to the government of Athoek and the administrators of the space station above it. The novel also makes some nods in the direction of themes such as colonialism, but treats the subject simplistically and superficially: no-one on Athoek but Breq has ever had the idea of treating the labourers fairly or even just enforcing the law on treating subject races well, apparently.
This is a slow-burning, SF-lite novel which feels like it is trying very hard to be a Lois McMaster Bujold book (who does this kind of comedy-of-manners, character-rooted story which holds back on violence and explosions with considerably less hype) but is undercut by also lacking the story and thematic elements that Bujold would include in her work effortlessly. If Ancillary Sword is anything, it's certainly not effortless: this is a turgidly-paced novel that took me five weeks to get through despite its modest length.
Still, Ancillary Mercy (**½) is a desperately slow and badly-paced novel rescued by some effective characterisation and ends with some plot developments that leave things in an intriguing place for Ancillary Mercy to resolve. How well it does so remains to be seen.
I found this book a lot harder to review than it's predesessor. The first book was a slow burn that really became a gripping read I couldn't put down with clever ideas and a grand setting. Ancillary Sword, its sequel starts off slow, and carries on that way for most of the book. That's not to say it's bad, it isn't, I enjoyed my time reading it quite a lot but it doesn't really push the overall plot or characters in any meaningful way.
Carrying on barely a week after Ancillary Justice's ending sees One Esk/Breq, Justice of Toren's last Ancillary, put in charge of the ship Mercy of Kalr and sent to a nearby system to defend it in the almost inevitable civil war brewing in the Radch. She then....sorts out a few local issues...eventually.... is kind of the story. It doesn't really feel like anything happens for most of the book and even thinking back on it now it's really hard for me to define what the point of it was.
Despite these issues though I read it in two days and found it a real page turner thanks to it being well written still with some neat ideas. Ann Leckie manages to develop quite a few interesting characters around Breq including Mercy of Kalr's soldiers who try hard to imitate being Ancillarys and often their personalities are defined by Breq sensing their emotions rather than them actually speaking which I quite liked just for being a bit different.
Overall it's a good book, well written with an interesting cast and neat ideas, it's just a tad slow and doesn't really seem to go anywhere. I'd still recommend it, but the tone feels different to the first book. I'm hoping the last part of the trilogy wraps everything up nicely as this really feels a bit like a filler entry.
+ Well written.
+ Some interesting ideas.
+ Decent characterisation.
- Very slow.
- Doesn't seem to push the series story at all.
And there's also a too-obvious moralising tone to the book where the upright commander / ex-ship is constantly showing up the moral weakness of the planet's rulers who are drawn really quite unsubtly as British Empire / Roman Empire style plutocrats, totally blind to their own prejudice and cruelty toward other classes/races. But it doesn't work because there's no depth to the drawing of the characters - they seem quite cartoonish in their words and actions, more caricatures than anything else.
All in all, not good. Especially when combined with a plot which moves at a pace which makes the movement of glaciers seem zippy by comparison. And at the end of the book the overall arc of the story set in motion so dynamically ion the first book hasn't moved on at all. Not sure whether to bother reading the third one now.