Before I started reading, I
author Ann Leckie would preserve the feeling of mystery that dominated
Ancillary Justice. That’s not to say I had a good handle on everything. The
previous book, a revenge plot, concludes with an uneasy alliance between the
robotic protagonist and its adversary. This development, along with the
author’s refusal to nail down the robot’s value system, made the space opera’s
direction feel kind of, well, nebulous.
I took it on faith that Leckie would make this book’s purpose clear over the
course of its 350 pages. Sorry to say: she let me down.
Our hero Breq arrives at a planet colonized by the empire and quickly becomes
engaged in the ongoing social unrest. The story is moderately interesting but
largely disconnected from the events of the previous book. Most of the themes
get no more than a few nods. This includes:
- the threat of the shadowy Presger alien race
- the Radch empire’s caste system
- the emperor’s split personality (and really, the emperor at all)
- the relationship between Breq and Seivarden
- Breq’s humanity
Any one of those could have supported a novel, but instead, Ancillary Sword
is preoccupied with a new setting and cast of characters. There are some neat
ideas here, but even those aren’t given much attention. The military empire is
on the brink of civil war, but the paranoia you’d expect is muted at best. A
central character is born fully grown and possessing the memories of two other
people, but the uniqueness of their experience is barely acknowledged. All this
makes the novel feel more like an overlong short story.
The hastiness of the characterization only reinforces that feeling. Although it
lost most of its superhuman power in the events of Ancillary Justice, Breq
retains the ability to sense the physiology of people around it. In keeping
with a pretext of the earlier novel, it can use this information to infer
peoples’ emotional state.
“Kalr Five will desire her to wait until I get back,” I saw a flash of
trepidation from her. And an undercurrent off… admiration, was it? And
envy. That was curious.
I don’t know what it would take to justify such ham-fisted storytelling, but
the flimsy premise of “inference via vital signs” doesn’t cut it.
The “Imperial Radch” series concludes with a third novel, Ancillary Mercy.
I’m going to give it a shot but not out of any love for Ancillary Sword. It’s
really an indication of the strength of the first book that my curiosity about
the original premise has somehow survived. The stakes will be higher, though:
in addition to tying up those plot lines, Leckie has to justify this diversion.