Ann Leckie earned a mountain of praise—and some major awards—for her debut Ancillary Justice (2014), a book I really enjoyed. The sequel, Ancillary Sword, is a solid effort, but it pales in comparison to the original. The innovative elements of Justice have lost their novelty, and much that remains in Sword lacks the complexity of a great novel.
There are no major spoilers in this review for Sword, but it is impossible to discuss the sequel without revealing certain significant events from Justice.
There were two elements of Justice that made it unique. The first was the narrator. The Justice of Toren is a two-thousand-year-old space ship governed by an advanced artificial intelligence (AI) system. Much of the Justice of Toren’s crew is made up of ancillaries. Ancillaries are captured enemy soldiers whose minds have been replaced by the ship’s AI, making them essentially appendages of the ship. The ship and its ancillaries share one mind, a mind that senses everything its ancillaries sense and one that is able to coordinate their actions with frightening efficiency.
Justice interwove two narratives, one describing the events leading up to the destruction of the Justice of Toren, and the other describing the ship’s sole surviving ancillary’s quest for justice twenty years later. This narrative complexity is gone from Sword, which continues the story of that ancillary, who now goes by the name Breq Mianaai. There are no more flashbacks from the perspective of a ship and its network of zombie soldiers. Breq feels much more like a conventional narrator here than in Justice.
The other unique element of Justice was that the setting, the Radch Empire, is a society that doesn’t recognize gender. All characters are referred to as “she,” and even the narrator’s gender remains a mystery. But this factor loses its novelty in Sword and borders on implausibility. At one point, Breq is speaking with members of a culture that does recognize gender. The perceptive ancillary notes “The lines of her face suggested she was genetically related,” but still has to guess at the sex in order to properly address her in the gender-recognizing language. Unlike the Radchaii, Breq makes a great effort to understand and respect cultural differences, with 2,000 years of experience to draw upon. Yet she remains completely unable to make gender distinctions, even when such distinctions are important to the people with whom she interacts.
As Sword begins, the Radch is being torn apart by a civil war between two or more aspects of its emperor, Anaander Mianaai, whose consciousness is shared by hundreds of ancillary-like bodies. The warring Anaanders have shut down the gates needed for interstellar travel, leaving each system isolated from the others. After the climactic events of Justice, the reform-minded aspect of Anaander names Breq fleet captain and gives her command of the Mercy of Kalr. Breq accepts the command, but offers no allegiance to any of the Anaanders.
Breq leads her crew to the planet of Athoek, where she hopes to protect the sister of one of her old lieutenants. At Athoek, she finds slavery, racism, wealth inequality and corruption, all at odds with supposed egalitarianism and efficiency of the Radch. This brings us to the novel’s real flaw: moral simplicity. As fleet captain, Breq immediately begins reforming the unjust society, much to the consternation of its ruling class. There is something interesting about the AI-driven mind of the ancillary demonstrating greater empathy than the real humans she encounters. But a morally perfect protagonist gets old pretty quickly. And Breq never encounters any truly difficult political questions, and there seems to be no lack of resources to bring about her reforms. Abolishing slavery is an easy moral decision, but in practice it is a very messy process.
As a living computer, Breq is also near perfect on an intellectual level. But she seems more like Sherlock Holmes than Hal 9000. Like Holmes, Breq notices everything and can use minor details to her advantage. She sets several plots in motion, which the reader only comes to understand as those plots unfold. Like a good Arthur Conan Doyle tale or a heist film, the suspense comes not from wondering with the plan will succeed, but by uncovering exactly what the plan is.
Attempting to match Ancillary Justice is a tall order, and I don’t fault Leckie for falling short in its sequel. Losing the novelty of some of the first book’s innovative elements is to be expected. But the moral simplicity of Ancillary Sword overshadowed the fun of watching Breq’s machinations come to fruition.