Ancillary Sword picks up almost immediately after Ancillary Justice ends. Breq, kind of forcibly adopted into the house of tyrant Anander Mianaai, is sent by said tyrant to Athoek Station. Anander wants Breq to look for signs of the other Anander’s influence in the system; Breq just wants to protect the surviving family member of a lieutenant she once knew when she was Justice of Toren.
The specifics aren’t really important here, and you can read Ancillary Sword without reading the first book (though I recommend the first book!). What matters is that Breq is the highest military authority in the system, and what she discovers there she does not like. She proceeds to turn the social order topsy-turvy—and, surprise surprise, some people don’t like that. But mostly, this book is about Breq’s struggle with scale.
Leckie doesn’t employ flashbacks here. Rather than interlace Breq’s growing individuality with glimpses of her past as a ship, Leckie keeps the narrative pretty linear. We get occasional and abrupt shifts of perspective as Mercy of Kalr shows Breq the feelings or events happening to a member of her crew. However, these are always fleeting. Breq remains an embodied individual. Whereas in the first book Breq simply had to develop an individual personality, this book is about how she is adjusting to the limitations of that body.
Think about it: as a troop carrier, Justice of Toren could literally be and act in more than one place at a time through the use of its ancillaries, as Breq had once been. Now she is limited to a single body—yes, she can keep tabs on more than one location, but her ability to act is greatly reduced. Similarly, Justice of Toren’s life-span measures on the order of millennia, while Breq gets maybe a little more than a century. So the scale of Breq’s experience has been drastically reduced.
The other pesky problem with embodied individuality is a sense of guilt triggered by persecution. Many people are eager to discuss the way Leckie treats gender in this book and its predecessor. That’s all well and good, and I’ll get to it in a moment. But I don’t want us to lose sight on another valuable theme here, which is the difficulty of tearing down colonialism.
When Breq goes downwell to the planet, she has a chance to speak with people who hate her not as a person but as a symbol of the Radch. This isn’t the first time it has happened of course—Justice of Toren participated in numerous annexations and knows what it is like to be hated impersonally. Yet in many ways this is a new experience, because Breq is not here to annex, invade, or impose the Lord of the Rad’ch’s will. She is a bit of a crusader. Unfortunately, being a crusader and a rebel and wanting to tear down colonialist structures is easier said than done.
See, just because Breq wants to help doesn’t mean anyone else wants her to help. That includes the people being oppressed. She’s an outsider and an instrument of the oppressors, so why the hell should they trust her? Leckie portrays this scepticism in several, subtle variations. Breq comes to understand that there is only so much she can do: she can open doors, create opportunities, but she can’t really force anyone, on either side, to change or accept that help. Once again, she runs up against the limitations of being a single person, a single body. And it makes me think about my own limitations as one individual trying to do my best not to reinforce systems of discrimination.
As for the gender thing: Leckie continues to the practice of only using feminine pronouns when the characters are speaking Radchaai. I don’t visualize stuff while I read, so I’m not seeing all the characters as women—but I certainly tend to think of them as women as a result, and constantly have to remind myself that some of them might have penises. (Leckie uses the opportunity of a festival on Athoek that involves lots of penis effigies to remind us that neither gender nor sex are really binaries, and people with penises are not always men, as well as the converse.)
At the very least, I didn’t think, “Why are there so many women in this book?” Visibility of women in fiction simply by ratio is still a big deal. Technically what Leckie does here is a form of erasure, since she kind of wallpapers over all the subtleties of gender in a Left Hand of Darkness-esque move. (Vi Hart, fabulous mathemusician/VR pioneer, recently posted a video explaining why she’s had a change of heart about such a viewpoint.) I don’t think Leckie (or Le Guin, for that matter) intended it to be that way so much as they wanted to play with and challenge or notions of gender. And that’s all to the good. But we should also critique the critiques, no? So Ancillary Sword doesn’t necessarily boost the visibility or diversity of women characters on the page, but it at least contributes to the intertextual conversation that includes this topic. And the more we talk about this, the more likely we are to make positive change.
I’m perplexed by how much I think I liked this story over Ancillary Justice. Perplexed because by most metrics the latter should be a better story. It has higher stakes, a much deeper mystery, feels a lot more ambitious. In contrast, Ancillary Sword offers some pocket intrigue on a space station, and the amibiguous threat of the Presger, deferred ultimately until the next book. Nevertheless, I think I liked this one better. Can’t really explain it, not going to apologize. Just telling it like it is.
Leckie continues to receive crazy hype for these books, and all the more power to her for that. I don’t think they live up to such hype. But that shouldn’t be held against them, since the hype is pretty spectacular, and they certainly deserve some of it. Certainly I understand why this received a Hugo nomination. I doubt it’ll be my first choice on the ballot. But I can certainly see others appreciating Leckie’s creative contributions to the field and voting accordingly.