The novel “Ancillary Sword” by Ann Leckie was published for the first time in 2014. It’s the second book in the Imperial Radch series and follows “Ancillary Justice“. It won the BSFA and Locus awards as best novel of the year.
Breq was appointed Fleet Captain by Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, or rather by a part of her, as her personality has fragmented into many bodies. In charge of a fleet of starships, Breq is ordered to go to Athoek Station, where she must protect the nearby system from possible attacks that could come from another faction of the Lord of the Radch or from foreign powers.
The system near Athoek Station and the station itself have been part of the Radchaai empire for centuries but Breq still finds problems there that are consequences of its annexation. Lieutenant Awn’s sister also lives there, and Breq makes her an offer that she feels she owes her. Breq’s presence is not appreciated by someone, but it’s not easy to understand from which side the dangers may come.
The acclaimed novel “Ancillary Justice” offered a well-constructed portrait of an empire and interesting characters, starting with Breq. The idea of artificial intelligence-led starships controlling human bodies called ancillaries was interesting and used well as Breq herself used to be an ancillary. In the Radchaai language, there are no gender distinctions, so when Breq tells her story in the first person, the feminine pronoun is always used in English for all characters.
The personality of Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of Radch, is also divided into multiple bodies, a choice that should allow her to manage her empire more efficiently but which has ended up leading to a kind of schizophrenia. Breq has allied herself with the more peaceful part of her and has been sent to an imperial outpost as a Fleet Captain. Around Athoek Station most of the story unfolds.
In many ways, “Ancillary Sword” is simpler than “Ancillary Justice”, but requires reading the first novel. At the beginning of the trilogy, the reader learned about Breq and her complex personal history while receiving a lot of information about the Radchaai empire as well. The second novel is also more linear in the development of the story and the complications come from the intrigues Breq finds on Athoek Station. The presence of a Presger translator makes it possible to provide some other information about this foreign power and its relationship with the Radch.
My problem with “Ancillary Sword” is that it feels more like a set of stories related to Athoek Station than a novel with a strong plot. Sometimes, the story seems almost an excuse used by Ann Leckie to develop the main themes of the novel. On some occasions, the impression is that Breq simply stumbles upon situations in which she feels she needs to intervene. The various parts can be interesting for the themes addressed and there are various twists, but they don’t seem blended as well as in the first novel.
“Ancillary Sword” is perhaps even more character-based than “Ancillary Justice”, and Ann Leckie uses the characters to develop some themes. Even more than in the first novel, the author seems to have been inspired by the British Empire and the centrality of tea is only the most superficial part. The Radch is a colonial empire, and that’s very noticeable in Athoek Station, where there are still differences in treatment between various ethnic groups centuries after the annexation. Breq tries to intervene, even at the cost of antagonizing local authorities, ending up mixed up in various intrigues.
Overall, “Ancillary Sword” has in my opinion more merits than flaws. It’s very different from “Ancillary Justice”, and is especially interesting for some important themes that are developed. For this reason, I believe it’s worth reading.