Directly following the events of Ancillary Justice, the former spaceship Justice of Toren—now known as Breq, and still inhabiting a single human body—has been promoted to Fleet Captain by Anaander Mianaai and sent on a mission to distant Athoek Station. Knowing, as few do, that the many-bodied Lord of the Radch is at war with herself, the two sides quietly readying their forces, Breq's mission is simple: to keep the people of Athoek system safe, even from their own ruler. But even before her arrival, Breq is beset with difficulties. Now captain of the ship Mercy of Kalr, she must win the trust of her human crew, including her new baby lieutenant, Tisarwat, who isn't what she seems. With Athoek Station itself snarled in a complex knot of prejudice and factional politics, Breq's mandate will be tricky to fulfil. What is really happening on Athoek's tea plantations? What is the Station AI hiding? And who—or what—is behind the nearby Ghost Gate?
As much as I loved Ancillary Justice, I was nervous about embarking on Ancillary Sword: partly because the first book set the bar so high, and partly because, given the fact that Justice was constructed around two alternating narratives—one in the past, and one in the present, their eventual collision a lynchpin moment for the plot—I wasn't sure how the sequel would look without that device. But from the very first page, I fell straight back into the world of Breq and the Radchaai, and could hardly put the book down until I was finished. Ancillary Sword is a different novel to Ancillary Justice, but no less accomplished—perhaps, I might even say, more accomplished—and though it took me a few chapters to place the sense of joyful familiarity I felt while reading it, both stylistically and thematically it reminded me of nothing so much as Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga.
The comparison isn't just due to Breq's status as an exceptional, compassionate, observant outsider, occupying a traditionally (in both senses of the word) powerful role, although this certainly gives her something in common with Miles Vorkosigan. It's the narratively addictive combination of military SF, comedy of manners, intrigue, and social politics that seems to characterise Bujold and Leckie's brand of science fiction, and while they explore it in very different ways—and with a suite of very different characters, regardless of the big-picture similarities between Breq and Miles—it's nonetheless a pleasing parallel.
But then, once you get past the stuffy, stupidly gendered logic that says military SF is a masculine genre and comedy of manners a feminine one and never the twain shall meet, the fusion of the two actually makes a great deal of sense. The military, both historically and as recreated from that history by Leckie and Bujold, is a highly ritualised environment, rife with the kind of rigid social etiquette and hierarchical formality we more often associate with Jane Austen. Which is, perhaps, why we see nothing unusual in the comedy-of-manners elements that creep into more historical/fantastical works, like Naomi Novik's Temeraire series: she's writing about the past, not the future, and as such, we can blame the formalities and jokes on the era, not the institution. But realistically—and I choose that word on purpose, knowing full well how loaded it is in the context—as long as you're writing about a hierarchical military environment, it doesn't matter how rough and tough and hardbitten your manly soldiers are: social interactions between the ranks are still going to be governed by some species of etiquette, and where such formality exists, there's space for comedy of manners.
Leckie, like Bujold before her, understands this perfectly. Though Breq, as a two-thousand-year-old AI, has no personal investment in the performance of particular human rituals, she nonetheless understands the need to mimic them, not only to better disguise herself, but because, given her status as Fleet Captain, there are times when her subordinates can't do likewise unless she first sets the example. Similarly, while Breq was created within and by the Radchaai culture, her lengthy exposure to other worlds and customs, coupled with her disillusionment with imperialism, renders her—unusually, for her rank and status—sympathetic to outsiders. On Athoek Station, Breq gravitates towards the Ychana, a local ethnic minority living in squalid conditions, and once she travels downwell to the planet below, she feels similar sympathies for the indentured plantation workers. The paradox of her position is rendered poignantly in the narrative: the people she encounters are suffering because of the Radchaai, and yet it's only thanks to the authority of the Imperial Radch that Breq has the power to help them. As such, she must walk a tightrope, fully aware of her inability to change locked-in systems of prejudice overnight, yet trying, still, to do what she can within her (very broad) mandate.
Ancillary Sword, therefore, is a novel about divisions—of class, of gender, of politics, and of self. When Breq arrives at Athoek Station in the midst of a local festival, she enquires after the history of what seems, to her, a curiously named celebration, and receives the following answer:
“Sir,” said Captain Hetnys just behind me. “It's a translation. The words are the same, in the Athoeki language.”
The Athoeki language. As though there had only been one. But there was never only one language, not in my considerable experience. (83)
And so it goes for everything else in Ancillary Sword: nothing is simple or singular; everything has multiple facets. Where Breq's fellow Radchaai see only native Athoekis and Valskaayan field workers, Breq sees Ychana and Xhai, and differentiates the Valskaayans by region and their preferred gender. One of Breq's soldiers, Tisarwat, is a human schism: formerly a seventeen-year-old baby lieutenant, after being briefly hijacked by Anaander Mianaai and turned, in effect, into a waking ancillary, Tisarwat both is and isn't herself. Even once Anaander's consciousness is gone, her memories of that other intelligence, and her three-thousand-year-old history, remain. Tisarwat knows exactly what the Lord of the Radch thought of her teenage personality, and having simultaneously been both critic and subject, she can no longer divorce the two. Athoek Station itself is, quite literally, a house divided: the broken chambers where the Ychana live have gone untended for so long that the station AI has built up a resentment towards its ostensible governors, not going so far as to disobey their instructions, but not being fully helpful, either.
Over and over, Ancillary Sword dissects with unerring precision the varying intersections of power and culture. The plots and cruelties Breq uncovers are all interconnected, not just because it benefits the narrative, but because corruption, by its nature, spreads out and downwards, and while Breq's inquiries start at the bottom, they cannot help but lead her to the top. Though not technically human herself, Breq's compassion is deeply so, and often more sincere than that of the people around her. Love, after all, is what first catalysed her rejection of Anaander Mianaai, back when she was Justice of Toren and ordered to kill her favourite lieutenant, Awn. The fact that Awn's younger sister, Basnaaid, is a horticulturist on Athoek Station, is another point of division. Breq's acceptance of Anaander Mianaai's mandate—and, by extension, her presence in the system—is both professional and deeply personal, and how is an AI to disentangle the two? Breq is ordered to keep the system safe; she wants to keep Basnaaid safe; there are some in the system who want Breq dead, and after a failed first overture, Basnaaid wants nothing to do with her; yet still she must persevere.
And then there's the Ghost Gate: a portal to a region of supposedly uninhabited space that is also, just as supposedly, haunted. At a time when multiple gates are down, stranding various travellers in the Athoek system, the presence of a functional gate that goes nowhere—or rather, that goes nowhere anyone wants to go—is a taunting paradox, exerting a subtle yet pertinent pressure on the local Athoeki and the narrative both. At every corner, the story is split between the hidden and the overt, the powerful and the powerless, and while Breq herself straddles many of these intersections, she isn't exempt from their complexities.
Ancillary Sword is a a tense, compelling, powerful novel, a worthy sequel to Ancillary Justice, and—one hopes—an equally worthy precursor to the forthcoming Ancillary Mercy. It has my unhesitating recommendation, and as with Ancillary Justice, I won't be in the least surprised if it garners a slew of awards. It more than deserves them.