While of course I envy new SF sensation Ann Leckie, in a few ways, I kinda don’t. When one’s debut novel drops, lights the community on fire, and sweeps the awards, there is a certain pressure for an equally amazing follow up. I would be very nervous writing under those conditions. Leckie holds up however, and delivers a second book that is either one step better than the first, or just a step behind, depending on one’s taste in SF. What’s different and why does it matter? Read on.
I am not the first to point out that Ancillary Sword is a more restrained, quiet novel than Ancillary Justice. I won’t be the last either, so we’ll hopefully move past that quickly to something more interesting. It is true though, and must be said, or nothing that follows will seem at all relevant. Breq and crew are confined to a single system, most of it on a space station, with no galactic gadding about. There is an explosion and a gun shot, but it is almost entirely a character and societal study. It is, I suppose, an archetypal middle book: Leckie is giving more depth to the people and places in her universe and setting up bigger conflicts, but saving the fireworks for later. Sword is just as “good” as Justice, but is far more sedate and introverted.
What else is different? The biggest change besides the action is the thematic focus. While it seems that Leckie didn’t intend for gender and pronouns to take over the conversation surrounding Justice, the decision to make “she” and “her” the defaults, while giving Breq all sorts of trouble figuring out which is which combined to overwhelm anything else the book examined. Not so in Sword. Part of this is because we know it’s coming and won’t be shocked a second time, but there are narrative reasons as well. Breq is surrounded this time by Radchaai for whom gender is a non-issue, so they’re all glossing over it together. Everyone is still a she, but this fact doesn’t really call attention to itself. I know several readers who never got past the gender thing in Justice who might enjoy Sword more, simply for this reason.
I may be in the minority, but I stopped noticing all the she’s during Justice, distracted as I was with other shiny things that come to the fore now, as gender fades a bit into the background. I think it is these other ideas that Leckie really meant to explore with the series. Sword looks deeper into empire and its effects on a society, both the conquering and conquered. The central arguments driving the galactic conflict are whether or not the Radch should continue to expand and what to do with the conquered planets. Frequent readers will know how this sort of debate warms the deepest cockles of my cold, political science heart.
As an added bonus, the Radch is a brilliant creation. Somehow avoiding infodumps and “as you know Bob,” Leckie paints a galactic empire with stunning subtlety. A highly ritualized culture, polytheistic with an undercurrent of Confucianism, the Radch echoes East Asia, while its militarism and treatment of the conquered bring to mind a galaxy-spanning Rome. Breq navigates the complicated social hierarchies, exposes the political fault lines, and participates in the day to day observances of the empire to a degree that it feels like I have read textbooks about everything. At the same time, Breq gives an unflinching window into her own life experience as a ship AI trapped in a human body. Leckie’s characters are sympathetic, but they never let us forget how totally alien this universe is. The Radch amazes on almost every page as a future history worthy of many more stories than I imagine Leckie will write in it.
For me, and I doubt I’m the only one, the first book was more engaging. Sword is one of the best books of the year, but I gravitate naturally towards the balls to the wall, dangling over the cutting edge, pushing the boundaries whirlwind of Justice more than the stately character piece that is Sword. Most of the reviews I have seen say exactly the opposite, that the measured pace and deep characterization attracted them more to the second book. I suspect that the community will split neatly down the middle on this question, with opinions saying more about the reader than the novel. I do think that readers who bounced off the first, especially with the gender bits, would find it worth the time to try out the second book. If the wild audacity of Justice doesn’t wind one’s personal clock like it did mine, the people and places in Sword may instead. The Radch is setting up to be one of the great future histories in the genre anyway, so it’s no doubt advised to keep oneself aware of its goings on.
By now, I’m convinced that Leckie can do no wrong, and I can’t wait for the next story.