(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing the 2015 Hugo nominees, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)
Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which last year swept just about every award in the science fiction community, including the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. I gave it a five-star review, and I felt all those accolades were totally deserved. Now we have the sequel, and the obvious question is: Is it as good as the first?
The short answer: Yes, in a completely different way.
I'm sure the author realized she would never have the big splashy entrance of Ancillary Justice again. That was a true lightning-in-a-bottle situation, and it's to her credit that she takes an entirely different tack with this book. Sword is tight and focused, looking inward to the characters rather than outward. The pace is slower and more deliberate, giving you time to work through the ramifications of everything established in Justice. This is not to say it's boring, not at all; if anything, this story would reward subsequent reads even more than Justice, I think.
There are two main threads here: 1) exploring the character of Breq Mianaai, the last surviving segment of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, now permanently downloaded into an ancillary body; and 2) exploring the fascinating, horrifying, quirky, ruthless Radchaai society. In this book, you can see Breq changing, beginning to open up; the flat tone of Justice, while perfect for that book, makes way here for a character who is struggling to come to terms with her situation and build a new life. This is summed up very well in the book's final paragraph, which is a wonderful capper to everything that has come before:
It wasn't the same. It wasn't what I wanted, not really, wasn't what I knew I would always reach for. But it would have to be enough.
Breq is still a nonhuman character, still thinks and acts differently than everyone else in the book (except the other ancillaries). But you can see, in this book, the beginnings of a new person, a fascinating meld of human and A.I. I am eagerly looking forward to the next book to see what this new person makes of herself.
Radchaai society, unfortunately, is not something to look forward to. It's fascinating, all right, but it's the fascination of a train wreck. On the one hand, you have a ruthless star empire, led by the three-thousand-year-old (and recently fractured into two, or perhaps more, opposing personalities) Anaander Mianaai, which "annexes"--read: "conquers"--every star system it comes across, and controls its citizens' lives right down to assigning them the work they will do and where they will live, and inserting implants that will allow the monitoring of every move they make. (The only check on Anaander Mianaai's expansion is the alien Presgar, which are so technologically advanced and so badass they force a treaty on the Radch sight unseen.) On the other hand, this same society is obsessed with gloves, and tea, and centuries-old tea sets (which actually play a fairly prominent part in the plot). This society is as fractured and fragmented as its leader, which is only to be expected, I suppose. Nevertheless, it's extremely interesting to watch its subtleties and nuances, and how Breq maneuvers her way through them.
We're being set up for something here, to be sure. I hope it involves the Presgar, as that's the only way I can presently see for Anaander Mianaai to be taken down. I suspect the third book is going to be as slam-bang and action-oriented as Justice. Nevertheless, we as readers deserved a bit of reflection and quiet time, and Ancillary Sword delivers that, in spades.
(An aside re: the Hugos. I would have read and reviewed this book anyway, as I loved its predecessor. It's quite interesting, however, that this book was nominated for Best Novel despite its absence on the Vapid Canines' slate. This, to me, speaks both to the strength of Ann Leckie's fans and its superiority as a written work. Certainly, everything else I've read of the Canines thus far is...not good, to say the least. This book is certainly deserving of a Hugo, and the others simply are not.)