Book Review: Ancillary Sword

AncillarySword

From Goodreads:

The Lord of the Radch has given Breq command of the ship Mercy of Kalr and sent her to the only place she would have agreed to go — to Athoek Station, where Lieutenant Awn’s sister works in Horticulture.

Athoek was annexed some six hundred years ago, and by now everyone is fully civilized — or should be. But everything is not as tranquil as it appears. Old divisions are still troublesome, Athoek Station’s AI is unhappy with the situation, and it looks like the alien Presger might have taken an interest in what’s going on. With no guarantees that interest is benevolent.

I’m just going to say it up front, instead of making you read the entire review to get to the possible juicy parts: I did not enjoy this book at any point while I was reading it. The rest of my review is going to focus on why.

I think betrayed promises are one of the reasons I disliked Ancillary Sword the entire time. The first novel in the trilogy, Ancillary Justice was solid, epic, and rather enjoyable. It won basically every award on the planet, and even if it didn’t completely thrill me, I can understand why it garnered at least some of the acclaim that it did. It was the story of a ship made into a person, the losses and changes she had to go through, and also the story of a splintered empire, ruled by an empress with multiple personality disorder. I expected the sequel to either be more of the same, or to expand into something even more epic—that’s what a trilogy promises to me.

It failed to deliver.

Spoiler warning for Ancillary Sword. Do not read past this point if you do not want a handful of plot points spoiled for you. I feel that I simply have to talk about them to properly express why I disliked this book.

The story followed Breq into a single solar system, and focused completely on her present-day life. As much as I found the flashback sequences in Ancillary Justice confusing, they offered glimpses of a major, planetary-wide conflict, as well as an intriguing view into what it meant for Breq to be an entire ship. None of that here, so there is nothing to detract from the present-day monotony of Breq’s life. The only glimpses that we get of her previous life as a ship are her moping about no longer having that power as she watches her own ship go about its duties.

Ancillary Justice ended on a tense note with the Anaander Mianaai plot, and I expected more of that here. Nope. Except for the thing in the first handful of pages, Breq is almost entirely shut-off from the galaxy outside her single solar system, and there are no copies of Anaander there for her deal with, so that plot does not get advanced—or ever brought up—much at all. I think this was honestly the biggest disappointment; Ancillary Sword was epic in scope, Ancillary Sword was not.

It was also boring as heck. More than half of the novel felt like it was spent drinking tea or thinking about tea and teacups. When I want to read about epic interplanetary space battles with immortal empresses and sentient ships, drinking tea on a space station, then drinking tea on a planet, then going and drinking tea again on the space station just doesn’t cut it for me.

All in all, I felt that Ancillary Sword could have been cut almost completely from the overall plot of the trilogy, and not much would have been missed, either in the way of worldbuilding or character development. Or action. Or the plot. I am not intending to subject myself to this again and try to read Ancillary Mercy unless it is required by the Hugo Awards next year. (I will read all nominees and give them a fair chance.) While Ancillary Sword did nothing majorly offensive or actively bad—the writing was at least competent—it did nothing to interest me either, and on the heels of Ancillary Justice, I was completely let down and did not enjoy it at all.

In summary, Ancillary Sword was a bunch of people drinking tea while hardly even contemplating the galaxy-shaking plots that must have been going on somewhere, leading to a boring, disappointing follow-up to an enjoyable first novel. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hated it, but I strongly disliked it, and felt that it had no place on this year’s award ballot. I give it two of five stars, sadly (I want to like the books I read!), and do not intend to continue with the series.

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

 

Ancillary_Justice

From the back cover:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

I read Ancillary Justice earlier this year as an attempt to prepare myself for voting in the Hugo Awards for the first time. The results of the voting have just come in, and Ancillary Justice has won the Hugo Award, making it the first novel ever to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards, considered by some to be the “triple crown” of the sci-fi and fantasy world. Ancillary Justice is Leckie’s first published novel, making this feat even more impressive.

The non-linear structure of the story is confusing at first. It’s told in two parts, the present and a series of flashbacks. I don’t have page- or word-counts, but it felt like the flashbacks took up nearly as much of the novel as the present time viewpoints, and I’m not a huge fan of flashbacks. That being said, these flashbacks were written well. I was never confused as to where or when I was, a problem I’ve run into with many books in the past.

The ideas behind the novel are very engaging, and Breq’s character most of all. She is–or was–an AI, capable of simultaneously inhabiting the bodies of hundreds, or even thousands of captives at once, allowing her to not only serve the crew herself as a ship (She is not allowed to be her own crew.), but also maintain a presence on a nearby planet. We see much, much more of this in the flashback chapters, which makes them absolutely critical for an understanding of her current situation, where she had been broken off from the ship, and is trapped in a single one of the bodies she once inhabited, reducing her to something nearly human.

Her struggle, an attempt to take revenge on the person–a term I use loosely here–who did this to her, has consumed her life since this event, and we meet her as she nears the point where she will have all of the tools she will need. Her drive for revenge is what pushes the novel along.

However, I feel that it gets distracted in places. The flashback chapters start out by simply showing us the world–fascinating through the PoV of an AI, but still mostly exposition–and I had a hard time getting through the first part of the book. Also, Breq takes some side-trips on her journey to attain the items she needs that I didn’t see any reason for in the plot, which frustrated me. I felt the book itself could have been shorter, and would have benefitted from it, mostly from a pacing perspective.

The ending was simultaneously satisfying and annoying. Ancillary Justice is the first book in a planned trilogy. The second book, Ancillary Sword, comes out on October 7th, less than two months from now. Ancillary Justice doesn’t tie up as many threads as I was hoping it would, but it does seem like it will fit well into the context of the trilogy. I’ll be getting the other books as they come out. I’m hoping the second book will be structured a little differently, with more action and less time on flashbacks. I can’t say much more about the ending without spoilers, so you’ll have to read it yourself to understand what I’m saying.

No review of Ancillary Justice would be complete without talking about the “pronoun thing”. In the language of the Radch, In which Breq thinks and speaks, all sentient beings are referred to as “she”, regardless of other considerations. This becomes apparent when Breq is required to interact with those outside of the empire, and often becomes confused by which pronoun to use. She notes that it is easier to just use one, and that it is often confusing to try to distinguish male and female among the many species which inhabit the galaxy, many of which have different visible sexual dimorphisms, or at times none at all.

This use has been praised by many in the SF/F community as progressive, and it is one of the reasons why the book has won so many awards over the past year. I personally found it to be an interesting–if distracting–world-building element an the beginning, which blended into the universe by the end of the story. I would be very interested to see how they would handle this in a movie or television adaptation of the series, where the viewers would have visual cues on the genders of the characters.

Verdict: Well worth the read, and I have no problems with Ancillary Justice winning the awards it did (Though I was pulling for The Wheel of Time for the Hugo.), as it was well written and contained some absolutely brilliant ideas. I found the flashbacks to be info-heavy, the pacing sometimes slow, and the ending slightly dissatisfying (Though it’s the first in a series, so it’s understandable.). The characters were well written, and the central conflict seemed very realistic. I’d recommend, but it’s not at the top of my list. Four out of Five stars. It’ll be interesting to see how Ancillary Sword does in next year’s awards.

Links:

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Sword