By Ann Leckie
One of the things that struck me the most about Ancillary Sword as I was reading it is that it is more overtly political than the first book, Ancillary Justice was. Of course, Ancillary Justice, itself, was quite a strong feminist statement, but, as I mentioned in my review of that book, its political function was mainly executed in the narrator’s voice and particularly her use of pronouns, rather than through the plot, and thus was more subversive than overt. That examination of gender politics is certainly still at work in this second installment of the trilogy, but author Ann Leckie also uses the main action of the story to look at class and economic power structures. Of course, with that kind of overtness comes the danger of being overly didactic, but I think that Leckie has done quite a skillful job of creating a book that both has a message and is also a good story.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq—the AI protagonist from the first book—is given command of a ship of her own and sent to a distant planet with orders to maintain peace there against the brewing civil war that began at the end of Ancillary Justice. As it turns out, the planet is a major source of tea, a staple agricultural product of the space empire in which the series takes place, and as so often is the case even in our real world, there is a huge disparity in wealth and power between the owners of the planet’s tea plantations and the people who actually work the land. Numerous intertwined plots and schemes arise, and Breq has to find a way to both maintain vigilance toward the larger events of the coming war, as well as work toward social justice for the downtrodden people of the planet and station where she’s been assigned.
The economic significance of tea in the universe of this series underlies much of the fundamental power structures in this book, and I was reminded at times of Arrakis and the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune. However, where Dune is a story about revolution and war (among other things), Ancillary Sword sees its tensions play out in community activism and legal drama. Again, it would be easy for this sort of thing to drift into heavy-handedness, but Leckie really does bring it all together quite impressively, and the result is a tight, well-paced story that manages both to advance the overall series and still delivery a pretty sharp commentary about power and class in our own world.
Of course, this sort of commentary is not particluarly new in the world of science fiction—the genre has been used to examine contemporary issues since its inception. But that this is not a new phenomenon is by no means a criticism; rather, I’d say that Leckie carries on the tradition proudly.
Ancillary Sword is a very different feeling book from its predecessor, so readers looking for something to hit all the same notes may find some disappointment there. But taken on its own merits, I think it’s a damn effective book and I highly recommend it.
Started: 1/28/2015 | Finished: 2/9/2015