Book Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Title: Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got this book: First I borrowed it from the library. However, the eBook is currently on sale for $4.99 on various platforms, so I later bought it from Kobo.
It’s Hugo season, which means that there’s normally a lot I plan to read before voting closes. However, this year’s Sad Puppy bullshit has reduced my reading load considerably. I’m probably going to stick with this year’s Best Novel nominees and Best Graphic Story nominees and avoid the short fiction nominees in general.
Which means that today I’ll talk about Ancillary Sword, which is one of the non-Sad-Puppy nominees for Best Novel this year — and also the sequel to Ancillary Justice, last year’s Best Novel winner.
Normally when I read something for the Hugos, I don’t just ask myself whether I liked it, but also whether it did something new or expanded the genre’s boundaries in some way. Ancillary Justice most definitely did. I loved nearly everything about it, from the spare prose to the way it upended pretty much every trope of space opera: it did things like introduce a language where female pronouns are the default and show a spacefaring human culture with Eastern-influenced religion, food, and aesthetics at its core (one notable example is that the Raadch culture sees dark skin as an elite caste marker).
Given how Justice swept SF’s major awards last year, Ancillary Sword had a lot to live up to. The story starts off almost immediately after the end of the first book, with Breq now given command of her own ship and a fancy new surname indicating her (fake) familial relationship to Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, whose consciousness is spread across thousands of cloned bodies. Breq has been told to travel to Athoek, a planet close to the space station that was ground zero for a coup attempted by one faction of Anaander Mianaai’s clones against another clone faction. Athoek holds a small amount of strategic significance in the looming civil war, as it’s a planet dedicated to farming tea — a beverage seen as the epitome of Radch culture and refinement.
(Of course, it goes without saying that I was full of glee at the prospect of an SF novel taking place on a whole tea-farming planet. Eeee!)
However, Athoek is also personally significant to Breq: it’s home to the sole surviving family member of Lieutenant Awn, whom Breq was forced to kill 20 years ago. Using her newfound status and wealth, Breq hopes to make Awn’s sister her heir in the hopes that this will alleviate some of her guilt.
The rest of the plot is full of political machinations, including a run-in with an elite with a serious sense of sexual entitlement, a potential diplomatic catastrophe with a hostile alien race, discontent among tea plantation labourers, and the increasing mystery of what lies beyond the Ghost Gate, the limits of Radch space.
Despite this, the novel moves at a slow pace, with the majority of it happening on a tea estate in the countryside during a period of mourning. This makes the final few chapters all the more off-kilter, because so many plot threads come to a head at once that the climax feels both rushed and of low stakes.
Ultimately, while I enjoyed Ancillary Sword, I felt that its predecessor was so remarkable in its own right that this sequel pales in comparison. The first one, because of its novelty to me, felt like a bolt from the blue, while this one doesn’t. What effect this will have on my Hugo voting remains to be seen, however, since I’m still only partway through The Three-Body Problem and haven’t even started The Goblin Emperor yet.
Bonus! Ann Leckie goes into more detail here about exactly what tea that citizens in the Radch drink. It turns out I was right in guessing that a significant tea variety in the book is similar to a green oolong! Plus, I’m quite interested to learn that pu’erh is the tea of the Radch lower classes because it’s easy to transport and doesn’t spoil. It makes sense in historical context, but considering last decade’s pu’erh bubble, this news plays against contemporary expectations.