While preparing my 2018 book awards, one thing that stood out to me was that two of my favorite books from last year were the beginnings of a completed series I hadn’t finished yet. Rather than let that situation linger on into the new year, I figured I would prioritize tying up these loose ends before too much more time passed between books. This 2014 novel is the follow-up to Ancillary Justice, which took home my award for Favorite Science Fiction Novel last year.
Note: Throughout this post I am going to refer to various characters as “she.” As I mentioned in my previous review, this is problematic since gender-based identifications are not emphasized in the main character’s society and language, but since she uses female pronouns almost exclusively, so will I.
Ancillary Sword picks up about a week following the violence that broke out in Omaugh Palace after Breq forced the local bodies of Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai to confront her dueling personalities. On the orders of the “good” Mianaai, Breq has been given the rank of Fleet Captain and reluctantly sent off to the Athoek system in command of a light military ship named the Mercy of Kalr. Already unsure of her assignment, Breq quickly finds her mission to secure the system greatly complicated by long-standing social tensions exacerbated by ineffective and corrupt administrators. When overzealous security officers accidentally kill a translator from the feared Presger Empire, Breq is forced to confront not only unrest from the local population, but also the prospect of war with an unstoppable alien force.
I thought this was a very enjoyable second act, though it perhaps did not have quite the same epic scope as the first. While the initial story sent the reader off into a vast empire on the brink of civil war, this one felt more like a side quest designed to get people in place for the final confrontation. That is by no means meant to suggest this book didn’t have a lot to offer, though. I was excited to see the mysterious Presger more directly enter into the story and there are certainly no shortage of compelling storylines to watch going into the final book. Also, now that I am accustomed to the absence of gender in this universe, I had fun trying to guess the sex of the characters. I’m still unsure about the main ones, but for whatever it’s worth I am at the moment thinking Breq inhabits a biologically male body while Seivarden and Tisarwat are biologically female. I think. Following these lines, and considering how much the book avoids gender, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of Breq arriving on Athoek Station just in time to catch the Genitalia Festival, complete with brightly colored fake penises literally hanging from the walls. Beyond the comedic aspects, however, this event also served as a good lead in to the story’s more serious themes of how marginalized people maintain their identity and what it means for them to be “equal’ parts of a society in which “equally important, just different always seemed to translate into some “equally important” roles being more worthy of respect and reward than others.” I’ve really enjoyed the author’s exploration of this topic and look forward to seeing where takes it.
Another highlight for me was the characters themselves. Breq’s arc was particularly satisfying as not only did she make a formidable Fleet Captain, but she used her rank and position to further her tendency, as one character put it, to go “straight to the bottom of the ladder” to find allies among the disadvantaged. There was certainly a feel good aspect to seeing her unmask an influential citizen and make her face consequences for abusive actions her status would have previously shielded her from. It was also interesting to see her interactions with the AIs running Athoek Station and the Mercy of Kalr as they added a fascinating viewpoint to the story by making the reader consider the motivations and dispositions of these entities. Supporting Breq, I found two of her Lieutenants quite engaging as well. Newcomer Lieutenant Tisarwat, on account of her combined inexperience and unique connection to Anaander Mianaai, seems poised to be a fun character to watch. Likewise, Seivarden, who despite having a less prominent role than I had expected, also seems poised for some big moments in the next book now that her addiction struggles have returned and her (unrequited) feelings for Breq are out in the open. I honestly did not see that last part coming, apparently I really misread her previously!
At this point I am very eager to pick up the final book in the trilogy. We have all the pieces in place for a major showdown and I am sure there are more than a few twists and turns ahead. So far this series has more than lived up its praise and while I am going to be sad to see it end, I really want to know what happens!