Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: Ancillary Sword by Anne Leckie

Reviewed by John Popham

Possibly the greatest weakness of Anne Leckie's Ancillary Sword is that it has the great misfortune of being the sequel to her previous novel, Ancillary Justice, which deservedly swept the science fiction novel category during the 2014 Science Fiction awards season. 

In Ancillary Justice Leckie told the story of Breq, the last surviving corpse soldier, or ancillary, from the interstellar troop carrier Justice of Toren. Once a peripheral extension of that ship’s Artificial Intelligence, Breq retained the AI's identity following the troop carrier's destruction. Using alternating chapters, Justice told its protagonist's story using two plot lines; one following the star ship Justice of Toren’s AI through events leading up to its destruction, and the other following Breq, Justice of Toren's sole surviving ancillary, on her quest for vengeance against Anaander Mianaai, the emperor responsible for Justice of Toren’s destruction.

Mianaai, Lord of Radch is the ultimate imperialist. She is an ancient, shared consciousness comprised of multiple physical bodies. For millennium, Mianaai has ruled humanity, her many bodies allowing her to maintain personal presence and control throughout her interstellar empire and extend her reign across many human generations. Now, however, some subsets of the Lord of Radch’s personality have begun to rebel against the rest of its collective self. The opening moves of an interstellar civil war are in progress. 

Ancillary Sword picks up the story where Ancillary Justice left off, with Breq having allied herself with one faction of the Lord of Radch’s larger personality. Breq is provided a ship, the Mercy of Kalir, the rank of fleet captain and is ordered to secure and take command of a system called Athoek.

The fracturing of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of Radch, to whom all humans owe absolute and unquestioning loyalty, into rival factions was a rich plot device in Ancillary Justice, driving most of the action in that novel.  In Ancillary Sword Leckie allows the cascade of knowledge and events set loose by Breq’s quest in the previous novel to begin to break out onto the larger stage of interstellar politics and intrigue.

For millennium, failure to obey the Lord of Radch has been de-facto treason. However, when cognitive dissonance ruptures the once monolithic imperial mind into multiple contesting factions, every act of obedience becomes, likewise, an act of treason. With this dissonance now out in the open, the highly centralized imperial society is beginning to break down. A choosing of sides has been forced upon humanity. Thus, Ancillary Sword begins with the makings of a very taut and exciting middle act to Leckie’s planned trilogy in place.  Unfortunately the author misses the opportunity to capitalize on that potential narrative energy.  The result is a disappointing offering by a talented author.

In part this is due to the structural differences between the two books. Ancillary Justice had the danger and urgency of Breq’s quest plot-line trading fours with the impending disaster of Justice of Toren’s destruction, an event that reveals the splintering of a 3,000 year old emperor’s multiple selves into warring factions, to drive it forward.  The loss of the ship’s-eye-view of events in Justice, with scenes described as they unfold from the AI’s many-POV perspective as a means of driving dramatic tension, is particularly missed in Ancillary Sword.

With the alternating Breq narratives reconciled, Leckie continues her story in linear fashion and from a conventional first-person point of view.  After the opening chapters orient the reader and introduce the crew of Mercy of Kalr, Leckie sets the book in motion as the ship and crew travel to Athoek. However, once the Mercy of Kalar arrives at their destination, Ancillary Sword segues into a meditation on human social and economic hierarchies and the evils of empire. The narrative velocity of the story is allowed to dissipate as Breq turns her hand to delivering comeuppance to those at the top of the social order and succor to Athoek's much put-upon underclass.

While essentially a spaceship's AI downloaded into a human body, Breq understands humanity and what is best for us much better than we do ourselves. Leckie's rationale for this is that, having seen to the needs of its human crew for thousands of years, the AI is well equipped to intervene in human affairs. This could have been an interesting idea if Breq were allowed to stumble as she navigated the differences between managing a few dozen humans in the tightly controlled context of a ship under military discipline, and doing so with billions of obstreperous free-range humans within much looser social construct of civilian society.  Sadly, this opportunity is missed as well. Breq begins the work of re-ordering society, humbling the exalted and exalting the the humble, with nary a misstep. Every human intervention Breq undertakes goes surprisingly well. And that, to some degree, is the central weakness of Ancillary Sword. Time and again, Leckie passes over the opportunity for nuance in favor of easy moralizing.

While Leckie is an ambitious and talented world builder, her characters tend not to receive the same level of attention. Beyond the protagonist Breq and Anaander Mianaai, the characters in Ancillary Sword tend toward thin and shallow sketches. They exist functionally and, at times, as a gestalt without seeming to emerge as fully realized characters. Breq's crew are not referred to by names, but as a number within their unit designation; an odd conceit for Breq to maintain given her objection to the continued use of humans as ancillary troops. Privileged characters are venal and shallow. Unprivileged characters are, almost invariably, good and thoughtful souls; the salt of the earth except when pushed to extremes by the venality of their privileged overlords. Most exist primarily as moral foils for Breq, providing her reasons to comment on events or hold forth on her personal philosophy. Or they offer facile counter-arguments for Breq to dispatch with ease. There is little by way of spark of life within them.

A notable exception to this is Dlique, a human raised by an alien race, the Presger, in order to serve as their translator. Translator Dlique explodes onto Ancillary Sword's stage for a mere ten pages or so but, in that brief space, manages to become the series' most memorable character to date. Indeed, Dlique's commentary in the inadequacy of eggs (they never become 'anything interesting like regret, or the middle of the night last week') is Ancillary Sword's most frequently quoted passage. Alas, poor Dlique is hustled back to the wings all too quickly. Understandably, I think. The light and color injected by Dlique into Leckie's otherwise brooding narrative would quickly have become too difficult to maintain without putting the larger work off its balance.

In the last quarter of the book Leckie re-engages the larger story arc, which injects sufficient energy into Ancillary Sword to drive the book's crisis and denouement to a satisfying conclusion. Revelations place Breq and the Mercy of Kalr in the shadow of potential threats lurking near the Athoek system. The impending civil war, which has spent much of Ancillary Sword as a faint rumble on the far horizon, seems suddenly (and finally) a clear and present danger once more.

While Ancillary Sword is not as good a work as Ancillary Justice, it is still a respectable entry into the far-future science fiction subgenre. It delivers a thoughtful 'ships in space' novel, leveraging the conventions of space opera and military science fiction without slipping into their more hackneyed tropes. While Sword does not stand well on its own, it provides a passable transition from Ancillary Justice to the final book in the Imperial Radch trilogy.

More than one author, having dazzled the public with their first novel, have become trapped by that success and never published a second. With Ancillary Sword, Leckie has gotten past the second novel curse in good form.

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