Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, was a huge success, achieving the near-unprecedented triple of the Arthur C Clarke, Hugo and Nebula awards. It was a refreshing take on good, old-fashioned space opera: spaceships and laser guns set in an empire loosely based on Ancient Rome. That civilisation had had an absolute ruler and complex relationships of power and patronage that had created a wealthy aristocratic elite.
What set Ancillary Justice apart was how those familiar tropes had been updated. The story was told through the eyes of one of those spaceships, Justice of Toren. Like the Lord of the Radch herself, Justice of Toren’s AI consciousness was distributed among a number of bodies known as ancillaries. But unlike Anander Mianaai, Justice of Toren’s ancillaries were captured human bodies, implanted with technology, rather than clones. There was a wonderful commentary on contemporary gender issues: the Radch is a culture with no gendered pronouns (all characters are described as ‘she’) and where bisexuality is the norm. And the treatment of colonialism was subtle and highly relevant.
Ancillary Sword is the second novel in the series. Not only do middle novels in a trilogy have to pull off the trick of continuing and maintaining the story, albeit without being able to provide a final resolution, it was always going to be difficult to follow up the success of the first book. Ann Leckie manages a barnstorming second novel, and does it with great style.
We follow Breq, the last of Justice of Toren’s ancillaries, now (ironically) made the captain of the of the Mercy of Kalr, a ship crewed by humans. Breq has been posted to the remote system of Athoek, to protect it while Anander Mianaai’s war with herself plays out.
This is a novel with a much smaller focus than the first, but the issues it deals with are no less significant than those in the first novel. Primarily the novel explores issues of class and poverty, and the abuse of power by those in privileged positions. There is also a sensitively written subplot about domestic violence. We also get to see some of the complex network of relationships and ritual that underpin Radchaii civilisation (the subtle insult that can be delivered by serving a guest tea on the everyday china is particularly delicious). All of this plays out in a way that reveals more about the overarching story, setting up the final volume in the trilogy.
Breq herself remains utterly compelling. She remains driven by her guilt and grief about the death of one of her former officers, Lieutenant Awn, and continues to struggle to life as an individual rather than as part of a larger whole. She is a tough and uncompromising captain, but one who is capable of great compassion towards others. Her friendshitp with Seivarden continues to deepen, albeit that Seivarden’s attachment to her is not returned in the same terms.
Once again, Leckie has proved that the genre can be used to explore complex and highly contemporary themes and issues with great sensitivity. And while telling a bloody good story.
Goodreads rating: 5*