Ancillary Sword

AncillarySwordCoverI recently read Ann Leckie’s new book ‘Ancillary Sword‘.  It’s a sequel to ‘Ancillary Justice’, which I recommended last year, and which went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

That first book explored a lot of mind bending concepts.  The first had been the main character, Breq, a woman, originally one of the “ancillaries”, a human body slaved to the group mind AI of a warship, but now the last surviving segment of that group mind.

This series humanizes AI, something I can often find annoying in fiction, but Leckie demonstrates a plausible reason for that humanization.  The ship AI isn’t purely a machine intelligence, but has essentially been merged with her human ancillaries.  The result is an AI that is far more human than most of the characters in the series are prepared for.

The second concept was another character who had turned themselves into a group mind, existing in numerous  human bodies.  The first book highlighted something that could go spectacularly wrong with such an arrangement, the consequences of which are still being played out in the second book.

But I think the concept that got everyone’s attention last year was the society of the Radch, a far future space faring and martial society where gender as a social construct doesn’t exist.  It exists biologically (in sci-fi that can’t be assumed), but is completely downplayed by the culture, to the extent that Breq, when interacting with people in a different society, often struggles with the idea of gender specific pronouns.  Normally, in Radch society, everyone is referred to as “she” or “her”, even if they happen to have a penis.

Every character being referred to in the female form took some getting used to in the first book.  I had a strong impulse to try to figure out what the biological sex of each character was.  But by the end of the first book, and the beginning of this one, that impulse had faded, and I accepted each character in the way they are presented, as essentially persons, which no doubt is where Leckie wanted to bring the reader.

The second book doesn’t introduce any new mind benders, but it does explore Radch society in a bit more depth.  In this book, Breq has been made into a “Fleet Captain”, obviously a type of Admiral, and navigates Radch society in a system that she’s been assigned to protect and stabilize.  We learn more about the universe initially developed in the first book.

There isn’t nearly as much action as in the first book, something I felt acutely at times.  Still, I enjoyed it enough to continue recommending the series.

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14 Responses to Ancillary Sword

  1. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do book reviews anymore, only brief recommendations. But I appear to be unable to keep my recommendations brief. Still, this is briefer than the typical reviews I used to do. 🙂

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  2. I don’t know if I told you this already, but I ordered Ancillary Justice and it’s next on my cue. I finished Dune and LOVED it, especially all the references to desert plants. Now I’m working on Solaris and also loving that (it’s funny, this last one is about a conscious ocean…)

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    • Awesome! I recall Frank Herbert saying that his interest in ecology is what started him on Dune. All the cultural, political, religious stuff came later. (Warning: the subsequent books in the series get progressively darker and weirder. I read through God Emperor of Dune before giving up.)

      I’ve never read Solaris, so I’ll be interested to know what you think of it when done.

      Hope you enjoy Ancillary Justice when you get to it!

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      • I’m curious to read the next book in the Dune series…I’m fully expecting a kind of Lawrence of Arabia. The religious stuff is the most interesting aspect of the novel to me.

        I’ll let you know about Solaris. It’s pretty good so far.

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        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          Be advised that, while Dune is genius — a true SF classic, the other books go downhill. So much so that some people believe Herbert had help writing Dune. If you’re read Herbert’s other SF… well, it’s so incredibly lackluster that it does lend some credence to the theory. (FTR: I don’t agree. I think any serious artist (and even some non-serious ones) can have strokes of genius.)

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          • I am warned!

            Yeah, I can’t imagine several authors working on Dune. Maybe they helped, but it’s so stylistically coherent. I’ve been paying attention to the way he works in omniscient and his style would be hard to replicate. That said, someone could write his drafts, then he could go back and rework them…but that seems unlikely. I’m going with your stroke of genius. I believe in the muses.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Likewise! There are similar “one hit” wonders in all areas of art.

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  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    “There isn’t nearly as much action as in the first book,”

    Is it meant to be a trilogy? Most of them suffer from “second act” syndrome. The first act introduces the pieces, the rules and the conflict. The third act resolves it all with great huzzah. But the poor second act is stuck with the task of moving all the pieces into place for the third act.

    Some authors throw in a secondary conflict — usually resolved in the act — just to make it more exciting. Sometimes the second act is filled with defeat and loss to better highlight the victory of the third act.

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    • There are definitely plans for a third book. The story isn’t finished. And it did occur to me that this installment might simply suffer from middle book syndrome. Also I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy it, but it definitely lacked the punch of the first one.

      That said, if you read the first one, you’ll want to read this one. It does flesh out Radch society a bit more, and some of its satellite societies which are only briefly alluded to in the first book. But it wasn’t obvious that it moved the overall series arc forward appreciably, although some of the events in this book could potentially have major effects later.

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