Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ann Leckie’s debut novel (Ancillary Justice – post – which won all the awards this year). I really loved the first book so was looking forward eagerly to the second one, and it didn’t disappoint. I read it on the flights to & from Egypt last November, so I devoured it in a couple of large gulps rather than with pauses for thought. Due to that, and wanting to avoid spoilers for both this book and the first one, this post is just going to touch on some general points rather than go into any details.
One thing that struck me is how easy it was to get back into the lack of gender identification of Leckie’s protagonist’s point of view. In the first book it was something I was paying attention to in particular, as it was one of the things everyone was talking about in connection with the book. But it was easy to just roll with it this time round. I’m not sure if there were fewer places where Leckie was deliberately setting out to disconcert the reader (with “she” closely followed by a description that made it clear it was a man being referenced); or if I was just expecting it and so less disconcerted by it. I did default to imagining all the characters as women (due to the “she” pronouns used throughout) unless it was mentioned someone in particular was a man, which does give the book a different flavour to other books.
Generally this book didn’t seem to concentrate on the gender stuff, instead it took the theme of identity and what it means to be a person (rather than a thing) from the last book and put that even more at the centre. We have Breq, an ancillary/former ship (and our point of view) pretending to be a “real person”. We have her ship’s crew pretending to be ancillaries, as a point of pride that they are keeping up an old transition. We have a failed conversion to ancillary, leaving the character in question neither one nor the other. And there’s a lot of tension about who thinks who is a person (including their ownself) which dovetails in with more usual racism, classism and xenophobia, using the prejudices that are alien to the reader to illuminate the ones that are more familiar.
The Empire of the Radch in this book feels very like the British Empire – in particular it made me think of the way the British ruled India, and the way they talked about their Indian subjects. We watched an episode of a series about First World War soldiers from the various Empires (The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire), and it was talking about the theories of “Martial Races” that the British Empire had. So some tribes/ethnic groups/political divisions/arbitrary divisions of Indians were thought to be suitable for infantry, some for officers, some not for the army at all. All depending on whether they were stereotyped as clever, or courageous, or peaceful, or whatever. And this concept resonates strongly with the way the Radch tea plantation owners treat their
A good book, and good continuation of the series. I think there’s a lot of stuff here that will reward a re-read too – perhaps when the next one comes out I’ll read the first two again.