Monday, 24 October 2016

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

In an uncharacteristic move, it only took me a month or so to go from the first book in this series to the second one. (I often have gaps of a year or more.) When I first picked it up, my mind was swimming with the last draft of my dissertation and looking for work, and I had to put it back down. Now, though, one of those issues is resolved, and the other is coming close to being so, and last week I opened it again and read it in a few hasty gulps.

Look, I liked Ancillary Justice. I liked it a lot. But I like Ancillary Sword even better - there were genuine edge-of-my seat worries combined with taking the ideas about the cultures she created in such interesting directions, I could barely bear putting it down. I came back to it with such eagerness every day until I was done. (It didn't take long.)

In this one, Breq has been promoted to fleet captain by the fractured leader of the Radch Empire, Anaander Miaanai, but is still not working for her, which Miaanai is only barely tolerating (or is she?) She's sent with a Sword-class ship, the Mercy of Kalr, to a far gate and planet to secure it. Once there, she is almost immediately immersed into the politics of the station and planet, finding far more corruption than you might expect.

Or should you expect it? Leckie is incisive and merciless about where corruption breeds, how power is used and masked, how illusions of equality and citizenship are not extended equally. To be specific, there are two things she does over the course of the book that I absolutely fell in love with.  One is to take this complicated hierarchy of Radch society, with its emphasis on patron/client relationships, and add in sex. Sex barely came into the first book, except perhaps for Seivarden's fairly obvious feelings for Breq, and I'm delighted when it's brought into consideration - particularly when it's done thoughtfully and with an eye to exploring how future cultures might approach it.

Surprise! In a hierarchy-riddled world, it's combined with power and ripe for abuse! Since patron-client relationships are supposed to be entirely voluntary, it seems to be assumed it's something the client takes on willingly - but how voluntary is voluntary? What about if you mix in indentured servants who are technically citizens but for practical purposes, utterly trapped?

Excuse me while I do a happy dance. I don't necessarily want exploitative sexual relationships, but I am so thrilled when sex is taken seriously and thoughtfully in science fiction that it absolutely delighted me. (And of course, since all the Radch are gendered female, we have no idea at any point what the biological sex of the participants is. Actually, that's not quite true - there's one young person who has been forced into sex by the daughter of a prominent House, and since the planet the young person is from uses a language with binary pronouns, we do find out she's biologically male.)

So that's one thing that permeated the book, which is a lot about Breq pissing off some truly powerful people. The other theme that I enjoyed so very much was the recognition that not all oppressed groups see solidarity between themselves and other oppressed groups. Sometimes it happens, yes, but sometimes one oppressed group adopts the value judgements of the dominant group, basing their own worth on being better than the other group with even less power. I won't talk about how that plays in, but it's very nuanced and intense.

I realize I'm not talking much about the actual plot, but I'll keep it that way - I think people to whom these ideas are interesting will love it.

I liked and recommended the first book in the series, but now I'm recommending it even harder to encourage people to get to Ancillary Sword. This is one of the most thoughtful and gripping books in a while, folks. 

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