Book Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword book cover
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2014
Cover art by John Harris

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is less engaging than its predecessor. It’s a decent SF novel and I enjoyed reading it. But it wasn’t nearly as exciting or as compelling as Ancillary Justice.

I ended my review of Ms. Leckie’s first book with a note of confusion—it was a great novel but I couldn’t understand how it was great enough to have won all of the awards that it did. Even so, the second installment in her Imperial Radch series doesn’t live up to the expectations placed on it by that first novel.

There are two major shifts from the first novel in the series to this one:

  1. The scope of the second book is much narrower.
  2. The main character is portrayed in a very different light.

I’ll start with the changes that we see in Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen / Breq Mianaai.

In Ancillary Justice, she was very much the strong, silent type. She was terse, sparing of her words. This lent her a sense of focused purpose and created a bit of mystery around her. It made her compelling. It made her dangerous.

In Ancillary Sword, by contrast, she pontificates at the drop of a hat. She’s now the most verbose character in the story.

Moreover, her speeches carry a significant portion of the expositional burden of the narrative. I found the exposition in Ancillary Sword heavy-handed and dulling. This renders the main character far less engaging. She’s also less focused of purpose, which is appropriate to the story but it reduces her a bit, as well.

With a less compelling main character to draw the reader through the story, the plot needs to take up some of the slack. The story in Ancillary Sword is fine—it’s a well-rendered tale—but it’s smaller and less grand than the story we got in the first book.

Ancillary Justice was galactic in scope and the stakes of the conflict were proportionately elevated.

Ancillary Sword is almost parochial in comparison. The whole thing takes place in one location and the conflicts are mostly local. Such a narrow scope is an unexpected choice considering the breadth of vision that Ms. Leckie created with the first installment of the series.

The novel falls into three main acts:

Act One is exciting and begins the story with a moment of shocking violence.

Act Three—the climax and denouement of the novel—is fast-paced, with rapidly escalating danger, and it ties the story back into the larger conflict established in the first novel of the series.

Act Two is the odd one out and it occupies most of the book. As previously stated, this story takes place entirely within a single location: a small, rather unimportant planetary system. It deals entirely with the local conflicts of this system’s occupants.

This isn’t to say that local conflicts aren’t important. I would argue that Ancillary Sword has a more human perspective than its predecessor. Local conflicts give us personal examples of the endemic cultural conflicts of the Radchaai empire. This book lends Ms. Leckie’s universe a human face.

There are also several pieces of information provided to the reader in Act Two that are necessary to make sense of the climax of the book and to tie everything back into the larger meta-conflict of the series.

But it’s precisely these ties to the larger conflict that ultimately cause Ancillary Sword to feel so parochial. Much of the story in Act Two isn’t necessary simply to convey these few bits of information. If the ultimate purpose of Act Two is to provide the reader with them, then a significant portion of the book is irrelevant to that purpose.

I feel like there’s a disconnect between the story Ms. Leckie tells in this book and the larger saga she created with the first one. I’m not sure what to think about that.

At the end of Ancillary Sword, I’m left with no sense of what might be coming in Ancillary Mercy. And I find that I’m more wary than excited to find out.

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