Was this on my TBR? NOPE. But technically it should have been, because I did read the first one and I always intended to read the others!
I probably don’t have much interesting to say about this one, because I pure enjoyed it and that tends to make for dull book thoughts. Tell me again how scintillating the prose, how unputdownable, how twisty the plot and well-rounded the characters. Sing, O muse, of the suspenseful chapter, the flawed yet relateable protagonist who sailed across wine-dark space and made you think about the interaction of AI and human in an entirely new light while at the same time having some rollicking adventures and getting involved in some first-class scheming!
Where Ancillary Justice (as I wrote last time) had the problem with the two uneven storylines for the first half, Ancillary Sword is a lot more straightforward. Similarly, Breq’s spending huge chunks of time cut off from everything that in my opinion made her interesting isn’t a problem here. Seivarden is being who she was born to be (posh and sassy). There was even some cryptic hinting at the beginning, but without the second storyline holding back the pace, this was resolved quickly and efficiently. All is right with the world.
The story picks up from where Justice left off, with Breq the ship-less and Mercy of Kalr the ancillary-less being the best surrogates they can to each other and trying to survive the Radch’s new Anaander Mianaais problem and give Breq a bit of redemption/closure in one fell swoop.
This being Breq, nothing really goes as planned.
She has some of her AI omnipresence still, but rather than the familiar-viewed-from-a-different-angle that Ancillary Justice played with, this time we get to see a proper rogue-AI style application of that knowledge. Leckie really doesn’t rest on her laurels – not content with the fascinating scenarios and issues of Justice, she moves constantly forwards and uncovers ever new things. In Ancillary Justice, we learn that AIs are programmed to feel emotions because it’s (paradoxically to our ideas of logic) more practical and see how that affects the story. In Ancillary Sword, we learn a little more; that AIs aren’t just programmed to blindly love their maker because the person they are programmed to love will change, and then they will necessarily not love them anymore, and you can’t stop change. But AIs are capable of love nonetheless, having their motives and their favourites and their quiet ways of making life easy or difficult for people. Sword shows us a wider variety of AI personalities than we got to see in Justice, from the wilfully-obstinate Station at Omaugh Palace to Mercy of Kalr with its play-ancillaries, to moping, unhelpful Athoek Station to Sword of Atagaris and its firm loyalties.
And of course Breq herself, still written in that perfectly balanced way so that the reader is 100% in her factual, observant mind and is also surprised when the other human characters spot her eccentricities, because everything she does makes so much sense from the inside. Leckie maintains her ability to write human interactions and history-laden politics through Breq’s filter in such a way that the reader can get a glimpse of what is (or might be) really going on.
The more I think about the detail and worldbuilding, the more impressed I am with Leckie’s writing. The way characters are described only by the features that are valued by the Radchaai (skin colour, jewellery and other clothing-related social markers, even some weight/size detail in Ancillary Sword), giving us absolutely no clue as to their gender, really enforces what might otherwise have been a cheap gimmick (the monogendered language of the Radch). I also appreciated the multicultural and multilingual aspects of the Athoek system. It’s easy to split planets and such by language and culture, ignoring the example of the amazing diversity of everything we have on our own average-in-every-way planet that we live on right now. Even the conflicts were diverse, ranging from petty in-house bitchery to system-wide corruption to possible diplomatic incidents with other species (more plz), and it was all woven together excellently.
The Radch’s colonial expansionist habits (and the end? of the same) were also dealt with in a more comprehensive (though of course quite shallow) way here. After witnessing the annexation of Ors in the previous book, the reader now gets to see the aftermath of such annexations, hundreds of years in the future, and the effect that the very ending of annexation is having on the people who haven’t had time or been allowed to assimilate as much as the rest of the Radch. Breq’s long-lived AI experience of previous annexations give her a more neutral view of all the different bits of humanity (she’s seen a decent amount of currently-Radchaai civilisations be conquered themselves) but this isn’t really leaned on in the narrative – instead we get to focus on this one system and investigate it along with Breq, to whom, of course, the field workers and Undergarden dwellers are exactly the same kind of citizens as the plantation owners and horticulturalists. Its injustices stand alone and obvious without any wider context.
The detail I found most cutting about the whole situation is that the Radch’s whole deal is tea. They love tea. Tea is their everything, and every system has its own version of tea, often radically different, and it’s just what you drink. And Athoek is a tea-producing system, big with tourists. And the parallels are pretty unignorable.
The huge variety of the Radch comes across in pretty much every detail of the writing. You’ll notice that everyone is always “gesturing” and they eat with “utensils”. At first this kind of bothered me, but when you think of how many cultures have been assimilated into the Radch, in their Roman style, establishing control at the top and leaving the bottom to retain its familiar, there must be huge diversity in their eating utensils and sign languages, a lot of which Breq will be familiar with (we can assume she’d be familiar with gestures from all the cultures whose languages she speaks), and it frankly makes more sense in that context to cut through the movement itself straight to the meaning, as that’s what she would read from the movement straight away, in the same way as she cuts straight to the meaning of whichever language she’s speaking.
A couple of random things I wanted to mention – Leckie still fills the spaces between her dialogue with a lot of thinking/observing/description/flashbacks, sometimes too much. I did have to skip back a few times and catch up on what had purely been said, cutting out the rest of the narrative, just to keep up. She also seems to have doubled down on her fragmentary style. A couple of times at the beginning I had trouble parsing sentence fragments. Given the masterful treatment of pretty much every other aspect of the book, I feel like I want to let this slide, and attribute it to a deliberately sought effect (Breq’s being a fragment of what is ordinarily a much larger whole, and her natural habit of multitasking when it comes to having conversations and eavesdropping simultaneously). I did, however, feel like this was done better at some points than others. Later in the book, some of the choppier sequences were practically written for cinema. Incidentally, I would love to see this done in a visual medium one day, like really experimentally, really all out.
The last thing I want to mention that I thought was fantastic, though it’s just a tiny detail, is the crewmembers making fun of one of Breq’s foreign language songs, singing the syllables in approximation. I loved that.
Oh, tree! Where is my ass?