Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
Synopsis: A populist-leaning general sides with the underclasses against the ruling elites in a far-future analog of Imperial Rome.
Book Review: Leckie had set expectations high with her debut, Ancillary Justice, which was stunning. In this sequel she delivers in some areas, but falls short of her former glory in a few others.
(note, this is a sequel, so this review has a spoiler or two for the original book)
Her writing is still extremely strong. Everything flows wonderfully, and the protagonist’s ability to see out the eyes of her crew makes for a cool excuse to use a lot of quasi-Omnicient-Narrator tricks while remaining in the first person. It also allows for multiple actions happening simultaneously which we cut back and forth between, which makes for energetic reading. Leckie’s characters feel real, and the emotion in the narrative is strong – you cheer at the protagonists wins, hate who she hates, are worried when she’s worried, etc. This is something that improved a great deal from the first book, where it was harder to identify with the protagonist. And the plot of the novel is also fairly strong and keeps moving at a good pace, you want to keep reading. In fact, this is the first book I’ve read in quite a long time that kept me up waaay past when I should have gone to sleep, because I couldn’t put it down.
Leckie also portrays a very strict, hierarchal society fantastically, with all the protocols and formalities those require. And she does a fantastic job of striking that “underdog” nerve. Yes, I know it’s a teenage power fantasy, to suddenly be the supreme military commander in an area and be able to force the elitist assholes who are literally and figuratively exploiting and raping the underclasses to shape the fuck up and start acting like decent humans or by god you’ll have them stripped of their positions, flogged, and if necessary executed. Yet that power fantasy feels soooo good, and it’s damned compelling. Who hasn’t wanted to be the person to expose the most corrupt powerbrokers and punish them for their crimes? It is a sweet taste, and I reveled in it.
The book’s biggest problem is that it is a Middle Book and suffers from the typical Middle Book problems. The author is mainly setting up things for the final book of the trilogy, bridging the initial instigating action of the first book and climatic action of the third book with a bunch of “moving us from point A to point B” action that isn’t nearly as compelling. The first book is all about One Esk’s quest for the revenge of the murder of the one person she loved, revenge she must take on the Emperor(!), with a climactic showdown in the imperial palace. She swears at the end of that book to keep secretly working to destroy the Emperor, even as she’s outwardly siding with half of her. You’d think that would continue to be the defining struggle, but it rarely gets mentioned. It looks very much like One Esk is doing the Emperor’s will by bringing order to this system, and she doesn’t seem to be making secret plans or cooking up plots to destroy the Emperor at all. The stakes also seem low – we’re placed in a system out at the edges of the Empire that makes a luxury good that no one cares about right now, so it’s entirely untouched by the civil war shaking the important parts of the empire. It feels like the Emperor just wanted One Esk out of the way in a quiet place she couldn’t make trouble, and One Esk complied. There’s some hints that they’re near something important, but of course all that will turn up in the last book, not in this one.
Furthermore, the climax is not very climactic. It’s a brief flurry of violence without any lead-up tension and it’s over in a few pages. I was surprised when the book ended, it seemed very sudden, without anything important having been resolved. There hadn’t been much character growth in anyone, and the ultimate plot of Galactic Civil War was barely advanced. I was very disappointed. Honestly, I wish authors would simply stop writing Middle Books. All trilogies should only be two books long, and jump straight from the first book to the third book with maybe a single chapter taking the place of the second book. They’re almost always a let-down.
I’m not sure how to rate this book. I greatly enjoyed it while it lasted, but I didn’t feel very fulfilled after it was done. Like most middle books, my final opinion will probably depend on how I feel about the concluding book, where the actual resolution to the story rests. /sigh Based on my inability to stop reading it, and the strength of the writing, I’ll go with a provisional Lightly Recommended.
Book Club Review: I’m happy to say that the single-gender thing was not nearly as big a deal this time! Everyone had grown pretty used to it from having read the first book, so it no longer served as a stumbling block. There was still a bit of talk about it, but it didn’t dominate the discussion, thank goodness. I was so over it already.
Unfortunately Ancillary Sword was more simplistic than Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Justice was nuanced, and made cases both for and against its themes of consequentialism and determinism, giving the reader a lot of room for interpretation and argumentation. Ancillary Sword, OTOH, comes down pretty hard on the “populism is good, elitism is bad” side of class struggle. It’s a safe bet that most modern readers will be strongly on that side as well, and it’s emotionally compelling, but it’s not terribly thought-provoking.
There are, however, still quite a number of things to discuss, and we had a good conversation at the book club. Recommended.
Puppy Note: This should be right up the Puppies’ alley–a military space opera with good plotting. The primary message even mirrors their Hugo narrative! A minority of corrupt elites have taken control of the political institutions, and an outsider has to rise up for the common man to set things right. (or as The Phantom would say: “a thorough hill kicking and some ant stomping seems in order.These people gots to learn some manners.”) And yeah, it’s an intoxicating narrative! It’s why I always lean a bit to the Puppies’ side when I read Larry’s blog; he is very good at telling that story. :) So normally I would assume they’d love this. But due to the gender thing I think they’ll assume that the author is on the “wrong” side of the political spectrum, call it “message fiction,” and dislike/hate it.
They’re right that it’s message fiction (as all good fiction is, because if you aren’t saying something about the human condition why are you even writing?), but they’re wrong about the message. Ancillary Sword’s message is their message. It’s populism, and anti-elitism, and standing up for what’s right. They’ll think the message is something about hating men, I guess? Because the Radch society only has one non-gendered pronoun that applies to all people? OK, whatever.
I would be thrilled to be wrong though.
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