SOCIAL JUSTICE WILL COME TO THE EMPIRE
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED… ABANDON YOUR REVENGE AND WORK FOR YOUR DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER AFFLICTED NEMESIS?
(Imperial Radch, Book 2)
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
Date: 7th October 2014
If you cast your mind back to 2013 you may not recall that Ann Leckie’s début novel, Ancillary Justice, was published with little in the way of fanfare or hype. Yet you’ll have no difficulty remembering that the book quickly garnered great critical acclaim, which translated into significant commercial success. The book went on to win both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel, as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award. These plaudits, in addition to the other awards and nominations, were well deserved because Ancillary Justice was a breath of fresh air. The space opera genre had for many years been a stale wasteland of tedious novels weighed down by their bloated, cliché-ridden narratives. But Leckie conspired to bring something more original and satisfying to the table than most of her contemporaries were producing.
The obvious drawback to writing such a highly praised story, especially when it’s a début novel, is that every subsequent work by the author will be judged against it. That being the case, having set the bar so high for herself, Leckie’s sequel, Ancillary Sword, had a lot to live up to. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that it proves to be a rather disappointing follow-up. Though that’s not to suggest the book is a disaster, because it isn’t. But it certainly lacks many of the qualities that made its predecessor such a compelling and rewarding read. It’s hard not to feel that Leckie would have been better served by publishing a completely unrelated story for her second release, rather than a sequel, as the disappointment of not living up to Ancillary Justice wouldn’t be quite so acute. But, understandably, when the first part of a trilogy has been such a monster hit, it obviously makes commercial sense to capitalise on that success and get the second instalment into readers’ hand as soon as possible.
Ancillary Sword commences in the aftermath of the conclusion to the previous book. The once multifaceted protagonist, Breq, now confined to the body of a single ancillary soldier, failed in her two decade long revenge mission to assassinate Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch Empire. Not that success would have been anything more than a futile, hollow gesture. Anaander Mianaai has a limitless number of bodies to inhabit, making “her” effectively immortal; a reality which is further complicated by Breq’s knowledge that centuries in the past the Lord of the Radch became a split personality, two egos that have secretly been at war with each other. A conflict that will henceforth be fought in the open thanks in part to Breq’s failed assassination attempt.
This starting point could and should have been the catalyst for a tale every bit as engrossing as its forerunner, with Breq caught in the middle of the struggle between the two personalities of Anaander Mianaai. Sadly, what actually transpires is a story that is not connected in an obviously meaningful way to the war between the two sides of the Lord of the Radch. Instead, readers are given a story that, on the surface, sees Breq undertake a social justice mission on a cut-off Radchaai colony world to redress deeply entrenched ethnic prejudice, while exposing and putting an end to an illicit slave trade. This isn’t necessarily a negative in itself, but it does make the book feel fundamentally like a standalone novel, for the most part, though it still manages to provide the occasional teasing glimpse of what is presumably the trilogy’s central conflict between the two warring personalities of Anaander Mianaai.
The most unique feature of the first book of the trilogy, responsible for making Breq such a compelling protagonist, was that her being multiple entities (the A.I. of a sentient spaceship, as well as the legion of ancillary soldiers among the crew) allowed Leckie to overcome the limitations inherent to writing in the first person by narrating the story from numerous viewpoints since Breq could essentially be in multiple locations at the same time. And while in this second instalment of the trilogy Breq is a single entity, Leckie is able to retain this narrative device, albeit in a slightly different manner, because being an ancillary, Breq’s body contains the technological enhancements that enable her to link with Radchaai ships which allows her to see, hear and feel whatever the ship and its crew see, hear and feel. Though it’s not the same as being multiple entities in different locations at once, it does permit the author to keep readers abreast of events transpiring in places where Breq is not present as the character can effectively see through the eyes of other characters.
Even without the aforementioned quirk Breq would still be an eminently interesting character, not to mention sympathetic. There is something about her stoicism that makes it so easy to root for her. She never shies away from challenging situations, nor does she give up when faced with adversity. After failing in her attempt to kill Anaander Mianaai she has little difficulty acceding to (for all intents and purposes) being adopted into the family of her nemesis, taking the name Breq Mianaai; a cousin of the Lord of the Radch, as far as anyone else is concerned. She also has no trouble accepting a position as Fleet Captain of a Radchaai ship, and agrees to undertake an assignment on behalf of one side of Anaander Mianaai, though she has her own reasons for going to Athoek Station. It is home to the next of kin of the Radchaai lieutenant whom she murdered on the orders of the Lord of the Radch, when she was still a fully intact ship and compliment of ancillaries. This is why, for Breq, the assignment represents an opportunity to make amends to the younger sibling of the deceased officer.
So what is it that makes this sequel a rather disappointing follow-up to Ancillary Justice? Well, for most readers it is likely to be the distinct lack of action. Unlike the first book of the trilogy, Ancillary Sword is set almost entirely in one isolated location, narrating a story that unfolds in one time frame. Consequently, perhaps, there are an inordinate amount of scenes featuring Breq in the company of an assortment of other characters, sitting around and talking, while drinking tea. As far as this reader is concerned this wasn’t particularly an issue because Breq is such an intriguing character, and the scenes in question can’t be said to be boring, despite the lack of action. The real disappointment lies in the fact that the story’s narrative lacks the high stakes of its predecessor.
Ancillary Justice was essentially a revenge tale charting Breq’s quest to avenge both the unjust death of someone she loved and the egregious act of treachery that lead to the destruction of a greater part of herself. From the very outset the story had a clearly defined central objective; one that was profoundly personal for the protagonist. That cannot be said of this sequel novel. It takes a considerable amount of time to establish what the main premise of the story is, and ultimately it’s not really about an objective of Breq’s own choosing. She basically finds herself stationed in a markedly unequal society beset with ethnic discrimination, prompting her to step to the forefront of efforts to rectify this status quo, though she has no personal stake in the matter. Subsequent to this she inadvertently stumbles upon an illicit slave trade that she sets out to expose, bring an end to, and hold to account the persons responsible.
All in all, Ancillary Sword is a vastly different proposition than its precursor. In some ways this is a good thing, as there is no point in simply rehashing what came before. Having said that, the book falls into what I call Book Two Syndrome: the tendency for the second instalment of a trilogy to be noticeably weaker than book one and three, principally because they tend to be stopgaps to tide readers over until the concluding part of the trilogy for which all the good stuff has been reserved. Hence, like many book twos, this sequel doesn’t make for an especially strong standalone reading experience, as it lacks a definitive beginning and end, not to mention it’s all too apparent that much is being held back for the next book. In particular, there is a big mystery uncovered during the story, the lack of resolution to which, is presumably intended to ensure that readers are enticed to read the final instalment where all will be divulged.
To conclude, for readers who loved Ancillary Justice and were hoping for more of the same from the sequel, Ancillary Sword will likely prove to be a bit of a let down. I would recommend that all prospective readers bear in mind that the nature of the story told in this book is inherently different than the one told in the first part of the trilogy, so don’t approach this book expecting a rehash. It is still an enjoyable enough read, nonetheless, so don’t be put off reading it, especially if you are invested in the character Breq, who remains a thoroughly compelling protagonist.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.