[This review has minor spoilers for Ancillary Sword and major ones for Ancillary Justice.]
About a year ago, I read a review copy of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and did a positive but measured write-up of it, guardedly talking about how much I’d enjoyed the ideas explored in it and why those ideas should win it the Hugo. Not quite a year later, Ancillary Justice is the only novel in history to have won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and I’ve just read the newly-published sequel. The series is now called Imperial Raadch, and the new book picks up right where the last one left off, with Breq, now working for (one half of) Anaander Mianaai, on a mission to a place called Athoek Station to protect the sister of Lieutenant Awn.
The thing is, I enjoyed Ancillary Justice and very much respected its projects, and my review at the time reflected that, talking about all the stuff I and everyone have written about already: about the worldbuilding, the fascinating themes of identity, bodies and difference; the way the Radchaai inhabit an entirely female linguistic universe. And all those things are still in evidence, especially the last, which, aaah, is still as remarkable as it was and maybe even more so for being the second book that does it. It is psychologically warming in a way I can’t even articulate to read a whole novel that doesn’t use “he”; to have everything, every plot, every romance, every good deed and bad deed and minor detail be a thing that a woman does, or could be doing.
But Ancillary Sword is different. To me it reads as though two things have happened: that Leckie has become more comfortable in this universe, and that Breq has, too. This is the middle book in the series and Leckie has the time and space to play, and while I enjoyed Ancillary Justice, I loved Ancillary Sword and want to make everyone read it immediately, which is a slightly different thing. Possibly, though, this may be more because of me and my taste for small-scale worldbuilding than the novel, but let’s see. As above, Ancillary Sword picks up right where Ancillary Justice left off, on the way to Athoek Station – Breq heads out there with Seivarden, her former drug-addict companion and now loyal lieutenant, on board Mercy of Kalr, a ship just like Breq used to be when she was Justice of Toren. One of Breq’s soldiers, Kalr Five, is nervous about expressing it but still adamant: if they’re heading out into space, they need good china. This very rapidly transforms into a running gag about Breq wondering who actually gets to eat off said good china. In the meantime, Seivarden is ineptly-but-charmingly flirting with Breq; the rest of the crew have discovered Breq sings when she’s happy and have, themselves, begun singing when they’re happy; and seventeen-year-old Lieutenant Tisarwat, Breq’s youngest officer, is nervous as hell and wants to throw up a lot. And Mercy of Kalr, the ship, watches over the whole thing with a somewhat ironic eye. Of course, typically of Leckie, there’s a lot more to all of this than meets the eye – the good china is a mark of social status; seen from without, the crew are the agents of a terrifying imperial force; there are many more reasons than the obvious why Lieutenant Tisarwat is a nervous baby lieutenant. But at the same time, there doesn’t have to be more to this than meets the eye, and I was reminded very incongruously of George McDonald Fraser’s McAuslan books, in which a young officer gets used to his rank and file soldiers (who treat him exactly as Tisarwat’s treat hers) and starts figuring out some stuff about the world he lives in, as well. It’s a small-scale story against a giant space opera backdrop.
And, obviously, that’s my favourite thing: small-scale stories in an SFF setting is totally my jam, and this novel delivers beautifully. Breq’s quest in this novel is to make amends to Basnaaid, Awn’s sister, a very little human story, compared to her quest for revenge in the last book. Tisarwat’s growing up. Seivarden is learning how to be a good officer. In treating them with the same care and attention that she treats epic, galaxy-spanning battles for dominance, Leckie is telling us that these things matter. I think that’s a powerful idea in itself, but even more so for a story with a protagonist like this. Breq is Justice of Toren. She was a ship; she was a warship; she was responsible for the deaths of millions. As we know from the first novel, the thing that broke her was her being ordered to kill Lieutenant Awn in cold blood and carrying out that order; Breq has come by who she is the hard, hard, hard way. Which is why Breq’s kindness is a hard thing, too: Breq’s kindness to Tisarwat starts out so hard you don’t even know that it’s kindness. Her compassion for Basnaaid is terrifying. And there is another character in the novel, Queter, who points this out – who tells Breq that she was an imperialist and a warmonger, that she can only bring violence. That kindness is no longer something she can offer. Breq neither accepts nor denies this; she is who she is, because she can’t be anything else. She is who she is, she is what she’s done, and this is all she can do, now.
In the same way, I think the most powerful moment in the novel is close to the end, a last moment of connection between Kalr Twelve, Lieutenant Tisarwat and Breq. To explain it would be to spoil it, but again, the themes are evident: because unlike in the first novel, Breq can admit to the fact that she loved Lieutenant Awn, that she saved Seivarden from the snow because she felt sorry for her; and that she desperately misses the ship she used to be. In this novel, such small stories have the same power as the big ones. And so, Mercy of Kalr and its crew can do their best to help. The new ship isn’t like Justice of Toren – Breq isn’t one intelligence, encompassing all these people. But Mercy of Kalr and its crew, who sing their songs with her, who share what they are with her – they’ll do.