Given a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to the only place in the galaxy she will agree to go: Athoek station, to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew – a lieutenant she murdered in cold blood.
After finishing Ancillary Justice I was able to immediately dive into Ancillary Sword, which was lucky, because I really didn’t want to say goodbye to Breq for long. I’d already heard people raving how Ancillary Sword was even better than Ancillary Justice, so the book had a lot to live up to. And it did… in spades. Ancillary Sword takes the foundations Ann Leckie had laid in the first book and built them up and out into a fascinating structure, both in terms of the world-building and of the plot.
While Ancillary Sword features a far more localised radius of action than its predecessor – the story mainly moves between Athoek Station and the planet it orbits – Leckie manages to greatly enlarge the world in terms of its history, politics, and people. There is just so much to dig into in this book. We learn more about how the Radch deals with the people they’ve conquered and how they’ve made them Radchaai. Leckie shines a harsh light on colonialism, especially when Breq goes down to Athoek planet for a stay at a tea plantation. We see the way the Radch use the previously extant power differentials between ethnic groups to establish control, sometimes by backing the minority over the majority or vice versa. We’d already seen some of this in Ancillary Justice, with the smugglers and Awn, but we see it in more detail here. The original Athoeki were divided in Xhai and Ychana people. The Xhai were the ruling class and have remained so, while the Ychana live in the Undergarden of the Station, in illegal squats. At the same time, all plantation workers on the planet used to be Samirend, but at some point were replaced by Valaskayaan people, prisoners of war who were shipped over to serve as cheap or even free labour. And with every new minority brought in, the power balance between the ethnic groups shifts again, creating a new dynamic, but also new tensions.
Radch society is very much class-based and this is reflected both on the Station, the planet and on Breq’s new ship Mercy of Kalr. While on the planet and the Station divisions run along several axes, on the ship they seem to mostly run along status and rank lines. These on-ship class distinctions are most clearly explored in the relationship between Seivarden and Ekalu, with the latter being somewhat in awe of Seivarden because of her family and her way of speaking. We also see it in the different way Sword of Atagaris’ Amaat Lieutenant treats Ekalu from Seivarden. She is far more respectful towards Seivarden than she is towards Ekalu. On Athoek Station the class distinctions are far more complex and complicated. Not only is there the distinction between citizens and non-citizens, there is also the ethnic class distinctions, and the usual ruling class vs. working class divides.
Much of Ancillary Sword is an exploration of the nature of privilege and power and how to challenge the status quo. Breq by her very nature is a challenge to the status quo, an ancillary-turned-citizen, though most people are not aware of that fact. In a very real way Breq is both an insider and very much an outsider and this gives her a unique outlook on Radchaai society and its flaws. And where she can she tries to help those who are victims of inequality, standing up for the inhabitants of the Undergarden and for the workers on the plantations. We see the struggle between the classes and between those in power and those in their power reflected in several different ways of action. There are labour disputes, peaceful protesting by standing in line at the concourse and sit-down protests, and more violent protests, all of which are met with harsh repercussions.
I found these elements fascinating and that’s just two aspects of the novel. I haven’t even touched on the development of Breq and Seivarden and the new characters of Tisarwat, Kalr Five and the rest of the ship’s crew, Presger Translator Zeiat, Captain Hetnys, Sirix, and Citizen Queter. I really enjoyed the crew of Mercy of Kalr and the ship itself, but Kalr Five and her predilection for pretty porcelain and glass tea sets were my favourite. Leckie also poses some interesting questions with her portrayal of the human Kalrs who try to emulate ancillaries to the best of their abilities. Why would they wish to seem to be something most people abhor or at least see as less than human? It is a question that isn’t completely answered in Ancillary Sword and is up for further inspection in Ancillary Mercy. As is the case if Lieutenant Tisarwat and who and what she is. Tisarwat is a delight and I truly enjoyed her character, which is so earnest, lost, and confused I just wanted to hug her half of the time.
Ancillary Sword proved that Leckie’s success with Ancillary Justice wasn’t just a fluke, in fact it shows Leckie is still honing her craft and getting better. I realise that I mostly discussed themes in this review and not as much of the plot; suffice it to say that the book is as riveting as its predecessor even if it is a tad slower paced. Ancillary Sword is a damn fine second novel and I can’t recommend it highly enough.