The novel Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. A small red spacecraft flies over the surface of a much larger green spaceship.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

“Anger was an old companion of mine by now.”

Ancillary Sword is the sequel to the all-conquering Ancillary Justice, which won the 2014 Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke sci-fi literary awards. To be able to properly review and discuss the merits of this novel please note that this review contains major spoilers for Ancillary Justice.

Ancillary Sword begins with Breq being given command of the warship Mercy of Kalr by Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch. Anaander Mianaai has thousands of bodies, located in almost every part of her vast galactic empire, effectively making her rule immortal. However, something has gone terribly wrong and after committing genocide to eradicate an entire race of people when they resisted her, the Lord of the Radch is in conflict with herself. Her bodies are now divided, no longer of one single mind and purpose. Some seek to resume the warlike expansionist ways of the past, when the Radchaai Empire would arrive at a planet and ‘annex’ the population to serve them, the others trying to maintain the current policy of peacefully ruling their existing territory.

Breq is a victim of this hidden war. She is an ancillary, a human whose mind has been slaved to a sentient warship. Referred to as ‘corpse soldiers’, ancillaries are an extension of their ships. However, Breq’s ship, the Justice of Toren, has been destroyed as a consequence of the conflict within the Lord of the Radch. Breq is the sole survivor and wrestles with being reduced to a single body rather than her previous multi-faceted self.

“A ship’s captain stood there, an ancillary straight and still behind her. Seeing it I felt a stab of envy. I had once been what that ancillary was. I never could be that again.”

Breq is therefore struggling to find her purpose and, being a ship designed to serve her crew, she doesn’t really know what she wants. At the start of the story she is passively fulfilling a mission to protect the Atheok space station as well as the wider region from the warlike part of the Lord of the Radch. Breq was close friends with Lieutenant Awn before her death, so she is also motivated to protect Awn’s younger sister, who is living on the station.

Upon her arrival, Breq is soon awakened to the social injustice which pervades not only the station but the planet of Atheok itself, becoming uncomfortably aware she’s played a role over the last 2,000 years in creating the very conditions she now finds so objectionable. Much of the novel involves Breq taking steps to deal with the inequality she encounters. However, the way this is handled involves endless scenes where people talk at dinner parties, drink a lot of tea and agonise over which dinner service should be used.

The formality of the Radch, with their stiff, pressed uniforms, gloved hands, elaborate tea ceremonies and ornate decorative porcelain plates is in stark contrast to their history as an all-conquering empire, thinking nothing of their use of ancillaries or the subjugation of a whole people. Their rampant exploitation and colonialism hides behind the veneer of polite manners and a rigid social hierarchy.

“if there was one thing any Radchaai considered essential for civilised life, it was tea.” 

As a consequence all the characters in the novel tend to blend into one, not helped by the fact many of the Mercy of Kalr’s crew go by their unit numbers rather than their true name, so we have Kalr Five and Bo One, for example. The only person who remotely stands out is the alien Presger Translator Dlique, who was entertaining but sadly very underused. It’s also notable that whilst Captain Seivarden played a key part in the first book, her story is effectively parked in this novel, which felt like a missed opportunity.

Ancillary Sword is certainly very well written, and Leckie again employs the device where we experience simultaneous conversations and events through the multiple perspective of the ship Mercy of Kalr. This creates a genuine otherness to the story. However other stylistic choices did not work so well for me, in particular the songs, which tread a very fine line between being utterly alien and utterly terrible. The same point applies to the poetry, although I think this was more intentional on Leckie’s part.

My biggest issue with this book, though, is the thin plot and lack of action. There’s an awful lot of waiting around, a lot of talking and endless amounts of tea being drunk. When something more interesting does finally happen it’s always over in just a few pages, any immediate dilemma resolved in a chapter or two with virtually no tension. Ancillary Justice set up an incredible premise with the split personality of the Lord of the Radch. However, aside from one moment early on which was genuinely chilling, Anaander Mianaai plays no active part in the story, so all that build up is left unfulfilled. This was my main disappointment with the novel, which feels very much like it is treading water before the third book in the series.

Consequently, there is no struggle and no big reveal. The glacial pace reflects how this is intended to be a character-driven tale. Unfortunately we’re only really given an insight into Breq and, ultimately, she isn’t all that interesting. This is Downton Abbey in space, but without the compelling human drama which made that show such a success.

As I said earlier, this book is well written and it was a quick read for me. I enjoyed the novel but now I’ve finished I don’t feel an urge to continue on to the third book. This will appeal to readers who enjoy cerebral books with an emphasis on dialogue and nuanced societal manners. If you’re not too bothered about the absence of action and like a simple plot and a relaxing read, this series might be for you.

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Author: Tim Hardie

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