Nov 17 2014

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword puts author Ann Leckie in a strong position to be the first author since 1991-92 to repeat as winner of the Hugo for best novel, and indeed to be only the second person ever to repeat Hugo/Nebula awards in that category. Which is mainly to say that Ancillary Sword is a terrific book, one that deserves entrance into the pantheon of SF classics.

Hitherby spoilers.

The end of Ancillary Justice was one of two places in the book where I had some worries about it. (The other was nearly in the middle, when the lead character does something so impulsive and self-destructive that I was brought right out of my suspension of disbelief and thought, “No way.” Looking back now, I see that she had done something equally impulsive and even more self-destructive in the novels’ backstory, and there may be a third such action near the finale of Ancillary Sword. It makes me wonder about Breq, and that in itself is a testament to the strength of Leckie’s characters.) The story of Justice had been so perfect in and of itself, that the setup for a sequel felt tacked on. Worse was my worry that Breq was being set up as a Chosen One, around whom the fictional universe would now revolve.

She had come from nearly nowhere, as an ancillary beyond the borders of civilization, and through grit and determination had encountered, and bested or at least drawn the ruler of the great swath of interstellar space known as the Radch. That aspect of the story matched up so neatly with the archetypical hero’s journey that it seemed possible that she would become the pivot, not just of the novels she narrates, but of the much larger universe in which those stories were being played out.

I needn’t have worried. Breq Mianaai, formerly the starship Justice of Torren, may yet play a crucial role in the fate of the Radch. She is unique in that she was (is?) an artificial intelligence, once present not only in her form of a ship but also in each of the bodies of the crew and soldiers in that ship — ancillaries, in the novels’ parlance, humans whose consciousness was overwritten by that of the ship — and is now lodged in one of those bodies. In this book, Leckie shows much more of what that complex consciousness was like, and what Breq is missing now that she is singular.

But all of the major characters are unique, and that’s what I meant about Leckie avoiding the Chosen One template. She’s telling Breq’s stories, and some incidents that might end up being important in the history of the Radch, but she could equally be telling those incidents from the points of view of other characters, and there are events happening on other stages that could be — most likely will be — even more important to the history of her invented civilization than the ones depicted in the books. There’s depth to the characters and the setting that I found satisfying.

There are also pleasures to reading Ancillary Sword that are characteristically science fictional. The opening scene focuses on Breq and Anaander Mianaai the Lord of the Radch, whose consciousness is also spread among numerous bodies, and whose personality and memory stretch back three thousand years. Though the dialogue in the scene is between two human bodies, the minds behind them are intensely alien. Leckie captures that duality, and goes on to give readers another sort of alien, as Breq communicates with the new ship she is given to command, Mercy of Kalr, an AI as she once was, though without thousands of ancillary bodies.

A few pages later, Leckie produces another variation on this theme: young Lieutenant Tisarwat, newly assigned to Mercy of Kalr, and unbeknownst to herself made something of an ancillary of the Lord of the Radch. The deception is not lost on Breq, who in short order removes the implants that had imposed Anaander Mianaai’s consciousness on Tisarwat’s body. Her old self effectively dead, the implanted personality removed, but her body in perfect order, who or what is Tisarwat now?

The action of the novel takes place in one star system, in a relatively constricted period of time, as something like a civil war within the Radch puts interstellar travel to a temporary halt. Breq has orders from the highest level to maintain stability in the Athoek system, but her own actions may work to undermine that local stability; or perhaps they show that the outward appearance of stability may just be a facade for corruption and exploitation; or perhaps they show that no system can function without loopholes.

Action and intrigue abound, and it is a measure of the strength of the book that I can take those for granted — they are gripping and compulsive reading — and talk about themes and structural topics.

One of the things I wondered as I read on was why the AIs in the book bother with the humans at all. Each of the ships and the massive space station in Athoek system (it features a three-acre lake, for example) is run by an AI that is nearly omniscient within its own domain and as long-lived as the century-spanning structure it inhabits. The well-being of the humans on board is emotionally satisfying to the AIs, and ships in particular have bonds with their captains and officers that can be used to constrain their actions. As I thought about the book, I wondered how and why this should be, and whether Leckie will eventually fill her readers in on how this works, or whether it would remain a Euclidean premise of the story.

Like Ancillary Justice, this book had slightly jarring events at the mid-point and end. Because Ancillary Sword is just Leckie’s second book, it’s difficult to say if this is a deliberate feature of the books in this series, or a habit in her writing. At any rate, the incident in the middle of Sword did not threaten my disbelief. It was more like Chekhov’s rifle being taken off the mantlepiece, loaded, cocked, and paraded around the room for a few pages before being put back on the mantle. That scene is connected to another one near the end, in which the setup for the next book is rattled off: One of Mercy of Kalr‘s lieutenants rattles off the dangers that are still pending. It’s logical at that point, but it’s also a bit of stage business that stuck out to me.

These short paragraphs just scratch the surface of what Leckie has achieved with Ancillary Sword. There are whole plotlines about power and its uses and abuses, about history and its hidden corners in a deliberately homogenized society, about governing and ruling. There are deft observations about serving and responsibility. All of these emerge as natural products of a story that is propulsive and compelling, whose characters act in ways both natural and unexpected, revealing more of themselves on the way to an exciting conclusion. It’s a grand book, one I hope finds a permanent place on the shelf of must-read science fiction.

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