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The Whole World is Watching

Ancillary Sword  (Imperial Radch, volume 2)

By Ann Leckie 

6 Nov, 2014

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2014’s Ancillary Sword is a sequel to 2013’s Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Justice won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the BSFA Award, the Locus Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Justice also made the Tiptree Honor List, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award, and was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for best first science fiction/fantasy/horror novel. When a debut novel sweeps awards like this, the author’s second novel will be ruthlessly examined by legions of reviewers and critics who want to see if the author can catch lightning in bottle a second time. Justice won so many awards that Sword will be subjected to particularly close attention. But no pressure! 

As established in Ancillary Justice, the autocratic Radch have spent millennia extending their control over many of the human worlds. Now the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, is of two minds about fundamental questions of governance and as goes the Lord of the Radch, so go the Radch. Denied a single unified guiding vision, the Radch have collapsed into discord and open conflict. 

Now allied with one of the two main Radch factions, Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai accepts the assignment of riding herd on Athoek. While it is probably really unfair to call Athoek the Planet of the Tea Plantations, that’s what I am going to do. Athoek was brutally subjugated magnanimously civilized by the Radch a long time ago, so it should be a quiet, peaceful backwater. However, there is no plot if things actually work the way they are supposed to — so they do not.

From Breq’s point of view, the official mission facilitates a personal task. Years ago Breq was forced to execute a friend, Lieutenant Awn, and she is still haunted by Awn’s death. Awn’s sister Basnaaid Elming is a horticulturalist in the station orbiting Athoek. To Breq, Basnaaid is not just Awn’s grieving sibling but also someone to whom Breq can try to make amends for the earlier transgression.

The Radch claim to be guided by the three precepts of justice, propriety, and benefit” but like any other ruling class, the Radch are adept at creative interpretation, preferring to take what should be moderating principles as license to exploit their social inferiors. Resistance isn’t just futile; absent unexpected forces like justice-obsessed officers with broad powers, the upper classes see resistance as downright rude. 

Given that the ruling classes have made blinkered self-delusion a way of life, it’s not surprising that corruption is rife, that the peasantry is perpetually on the brink of open rebellion (held back mainly thanks to the Radch love of disproportionate retribution), and that Athoek’s space station, a bellwether for the system as a whole, is a poster child for crumbling infrastructure. If that were not bad enough, there’s a wrongfully-killed emissary from an alien civilization to worry about, as well as whatever it is lurking on the other side of the Ghost Gate. 

Negative stuff first: I understand Leckie has created this exaggeratedly exploitative system to critique it but goddamn do I get tired of the endless sequence of autocracies, absolute monarchies, dictatorships, cabals and similarly extremely pointy social pyramids science fiction seems determined to feed me. I assume the violent loathing I feel for aristocracies and plutocracies was the point. At least, I hope it was. 

This example of autocratic rule isn’t presented sympathetically, which is great. Empires look wonderful from a top-down view, the perspective a lot of authors prefer, but empires are not nearly as much fun seen from the muck. Breq’s peculiar history allows her a perspective on her society the ruling classes would never be able to develop. Unlike most of the people with a gutter-level perspective on the empire, Breq’s personal relationship to the Lord of the Radch offers her the opportunity to try to mitigate the worst excesses of the Radch. Having seen the Radch at work over two novels, I lean toward the view that trying to reform the Radch is a waste of time, unless by reform one means line every aristocrat up in front of a duly authorized firing squad,” but at least Breq has a hobby for her twilight years.

It’s kind of odd that a society in which people’s minds can be parallel-processed across legions, in which faster-than-light travel, Dyson spheres, and galactic empires are commonplaces, features a tea-farming system that a 19th Ceylonese plantation owner would find comprehensible. My suspicion is that this isn’t a failure of imagination by Leckie1 or an odd oversight by the ruling classes. Forcing people to waste their lives growing tea with needlessly labour-intensive methods is just the sort of idea the Radch adore. 

I’ve read Ancillary Justice so I am not sure how a reader new to Leckie’s series will see this book. The structure in this is more straightforward and since the stories Leckie wants to tell require the reader to understand the background, the author is much more forthcoming about details than I remember her being in the first book (Of course, it’s been a couple of years since I read that one). 

Leckie clearly believes that series novels should work as stand-alone novels as well as parts of a greater structure. I am no extremist; I intend no criticism of those misguided authors who produce tome after tome filled with plot fragments meandering to and fro in search of a closure they will never find. Truly, none proclaim as loudly as I do that writers should be free to waste their time and the lives of their readers creating bloated abominations! But it happens that the model Leckie uses here is the one I prefer and would like to see more generally adopted. 

New readers may find this a good jumping-on point. This novel demands a bit less than its predecessor did from the readers and that, I think, is going to cost it at award time, not because the book is inferior to the first but because it is different. Leckie has turned to a more classical model for her story than she used in her debut. Ancillary Sword is still well worth the reader’s time. 

Ancillary Sword is available from Orbit Books.

  1. I am not going to name the SF novel where it turns out the exotic material used for FTL drives is mined just as Welsh coal was in the old days but I am definitely thinking of it.