Note: Ancillary Sword is the second book in the Imperial Radch series, following Ancillary Justice.
Because I had once been a ship. An AI controlling an enormous troop carrier and thousands of ancillaries, human bodies, part of myself. At the time I had not thought of myself as a slave, but I had been a weapon of conquest… – Ancillary Sword
I read a lot and I read many series at once. Usually, when returning to a series it takes me a while to get back into that world. In that regard, a quick synopsis of the events of the preceding book at the start would be most welcome. A “Previously on…” section. Ancillary Sword starts with little preamble and I found myself scrambling to catch up for most of the novel. Ann Leckie’s love of unpronounceable names does not help. This brings me to another complaint. If you are going to include made-up words, please include a pronunciation guide for them. To highlight my point, the following is a small sample of names and words used regularly in Ancillary Sword:
Kalr Five, Raughd Denche, Seivarden, Athoeki, Tisarwat, Queter, Basnaaid, Skaaiat, Radchaai.
I will freely admit I pronounced the name Hermione as [her-mi-own-ee] until the first Harry Potter movie came out. I also did not realize until very recently that [cheh-von] is spelled Siobhan and Siobhan is not pronounced as [si-oh-ban]. What I’m saying is struggling with exotic names is not new for me. However, the words used in Ancillary Sword are so inscrutable every time I hit one (and this is nearly every paragraph) my mind would stumble over it. Rather than a smooth reading experience, the effect is jarring. So I would make up my own pronunciations. Raughd became Ralph. Kalr became Carl. Radchaai became radish. This lends a comedic air to what is not a particularly comedic book and I doubt this was the author’s intent. So please, all you writers of exotic made-up words, include a pronunciation guide from now on. Otherwise, your serious science fiction novel ends up being about the Imperial Radish in my head.
Another odd component of the series is all the genders in the series are referred to as female pronouns. This comes from a quirk of Breq, the main character, and narrator, being unable to easily identify gender. It is also because this society does not put emphasis on differentiating the sexes. This means characters are not described in much detail and I was never completely sure what gender anyone was. Does that matter for the story? No. However it does matter for my immersion and again, it is jarring and took me out of the experience of reading the book.
I have written over 350 words and have not even touched on the plot on Ancillary Sword. That is because as a follow-up to Ancillary Justice it is surprisingly limited in scope. All the action takes place on Athoeki station or the planet Athoeki. Breq, now promoted to Fleet Captain, is sent to Athoeki Station by the more passive version of Anaander Mianaai, to check its status in the wake of multiple destroyed jump gates. She agrees to go because Athoeki is where the surviving sister of Lieutenant Awn lives and Breq is desperate to make right her betrayal of Awn. She is given command of Mercy of Kalr and takes Seivarden, Ekalu, and newly arrived Tisarwat as her lieutenants. Quickly Breq discovers various intrigues and stumbles on evidence someone has been selling prisoners to create ancillaries, even though the creation of ancillaries has been long forbidden. Breq hides her identity as Justice of Toren so few onboard Mercy of Kalr or Athoeki Station know what she is while still maintain the ability to communicate with the Mercy of Kalr AI and see what it sees.
This point of view choice means while it is narrated in the first person, Breq has a recurring view of many other characters. While she cannot always tap this ability and trying to maintain more than one conversation at a time is difficult for her, it gives her insight that few know she has. Narratively this trick works to expand the story beyond Breq’s narrow focus while still maintain the first-person perspective.
For most of the novel, the reader is left questioning how the action is tying into the larger civil war brewing between warring Anaander Mianaais and their supporters. This central question is not resolved until the last few pages and the big questions it raises are not answered in Ancillary Sword, instead, they are being presumably carried over to Ancillary Mercy, the third installment. As a middle chapter of one long story that is expected but I think it weakens Ancillary Sword by having no real beginning or end. Things happen, the cause of things is murky at best, and then the novel ends. After the bombshell ending of Ancillary Justice, my expectations for the follow-up were high but ultimately unmet. That said, I am looking forward to reading how this story wraps up in Ancillary Mercy.