Thursday, June 11, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice was the most celebrated work of science fiction of the year, perhaps the most heralded science fiction debut of all time. In 2014 Ancillary Justice won the NebulaHugoBritish Science FictionLocus and Arthur C. Clarke awards. The follow-up is titled Ancillary Sword and has already won the British Science Fiction award and it has been nominated for the Locus, Hugo and Nebula awards. Surprisingly, it was not nominated for the Clarke award. UPDATE: we now know Annihilation won the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel so Ann Leckie will not be able to win back-to-back Hugo-Nebula awards.

There's some debate about whether Ancillary Sword  is better than Ancillary Justice or not. According to Goodreads, Ancillary Sword (4.07/5 from 6,693 ratings) is better than Ancillary Justice (3.97/5 from 18,595 ratings), while on Ancillary Justice (4.2/5 from 694 reviews) is better than Ancillary Sword (4.1/5 from 209 reviews). I suspect that as more people rate Ancillary Sword its ratings will start to slide. Then again, most sequels rate higher than the original because usually only people who liked the original even bother reading the sequel, so it is likely there is a selection bias at work.

While I liked Ancillary Justice quite a bit (A- on my 4.0 scale) I don't think it quite lives up to its reputation as "the most celebrated debut science fiction novel of all time." It's good, but it did not blow my mind. Ancillary Justice famously has a unique depiction of gender in a technologically advanced, galaxy-spanning civilization: The Radchaai do not see gender as a significant identifying characteristic (like eye or hair color) and the narrator Breq in Ancillary Justice uses the feminine pronoun to describe every character (both male and female) in the book.

Ancillary Sword follows Breq's story that started in Ancillary Justice. Breq used to be the artificial intelligence running the space ship Justice of Toren with thousands of partially cybernetic humans, called ancillaries, under her direct control but in the events that transpired before Ancillary Justice Breq had been reduced to existence in a single ancillary body. Ancillary Justice is about revealing Breq's backstory and following her as she navigates a complex, dangerous path to redemption.

In Ancillary Sword Breq has now been given the captaincy of her own ship, Mercy of Kalr and a mission to check out what is going on at a remote section of Radchaai space called Athoek Station. Athoek is near the border with the region of space known to be occupied by the secretive alien race known as the Presger.

The story told n Ancillary Sword is not as compelling to me as the one in Ancillary Justice. This time Breq seems to meander between various sub-plots that involve characters that I did not really feel invested in caring about. There's definitely a point about two-thirds through the book where I felt a lull and almost considered abandoning the book but I didn't out of respect for the author (and the first book). I'm glad that I persevered because the book ends strongly, with multiple exciting action scenes reminiscent of Ancillary Justice.

Overall, I'm glad that I read Ancillary Sword and think that it is a decent follow-up to the brilliant Ancillary Justice. I am anxiously looking forward to buying and reading Ancillary Mercy when it comes out later this year to see how Breq's story continues and whether Leckie can conclude the Imperial Radch trilogy successfully.

Title: Ancillary Sword.
Ann Leckie.
Paperback: 400 pages.
Date Published: October 7, 2014.
Date Read: January 8, 2015.

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).

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