Ancillary Sword: Review

October 16, 2014 2014, 4 star books, adult crossover, Kim, sci fi or futuristic 21 ★★★★

Ancillary Sword: ReviewAncillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch #2
Published by Orbit on October 7, 2014
Genres: adult, science fiction
Pages: 356
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
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What if you once had thousands of bodies and near god-like technology at your disposal?

And what if all of it were ripped away?

The Lord of the Radch has given Breq command of the ship Mercy of Kalr and sent her to the only place she would have agreed to go -- to Athoek Station, where Lieutenant Awn's sister works in Horticulture.

Athoek was annexed some six hundred years ago, and by now everyone is fully civilized -- or should be. But everything is not as tranquil as it appears. Old divisions are still troublesome, Athoek Station's AI is unhappy with the situation, and it looks like the alien Presger might have taken an interest in what's going on. With no guarantees that interest is benevolent.

Breq is a spaceship. Or, rather, she used to be. Once the AI consciousness of the ship known as Justice of Toren, Breq is now contained in a single ancillary (the how and why of which is detailed in Ancillary Justice). Perhaps some more explanation? An ancillary is a human body (most often a civilian casualty) with a ship’s consciousness and some rather tricked out implants that make them super soldiers. Ancillaries are an extension of the ship and see and know everything the ship does. Ships have many ancillaries and they are all collectively the same entity. When a human becomes an ancillary the person they were is dead forever. Through such means the Radchaai Empire has been able to conquer and colonize much of humanity. Okay, that’s as simple a primer I can do without giving too much away!

Man, I just love this series. Finally, finally! Here is the far future science fiction story I have been searching for. The humans are not white and definitions of gender have moved beyond the binary.  I mean, are we not supposed to be pushing the limits of our imaginations in science fiction?! I would be severely disappointed if we still had 21st century notions of gender tens of thousands of years from now. But I digress. Despite its many flaws, in Radchaai society gender is irrelevant. Their language has no distinction in gendered pronouns or titles.

In fact, everyone is referred to as “she” as the standard neutral pronoun. Breq herself, as an AI consciousness, is agender (yet nevertheless referred to as “she”). This is both to avoid the confusion of “they” when reading a book about a spaceship with multiple bodies and also a bit to subvert the usual masculine default. We don’t know the actual genders of the vast majority of characters so it is up to the reader to fill in those details if they so wish. I find this absolutely fascinating.

This second installment felt markedly different from the first book. Unlike in Ancillary Justice,  this volume serves up a linear narrative. Breq, now captain of a ship and crew (humans, not ancillaries) of her own, heads to the remote Athoek Station to tie up some unresolved business. What follows is a fairly straight forward plot examining the (non)ethics of slave labor and political corruption in an empire starting to fall apart at the seams. Often standard science fiction fare.

But what sets this novel apart is how interestingly Leckie crafts her characters and her world. Breq may not be human but she is a deeply decent person. And let’s face it, getting to be inside the head of a ship consciousness is pretty awesome. There is an incredible well of emotion that is not always readily apparent but there nonetheless, and all the more rewarding for when it does show. I’m such a sucker for these strong, stoic badasses.

As an ancillary, Breq has implants that allow her to see what Mercy of Kalr sees and to sense the emotions of her crew. The result is a near omniscient first person perspective that is written with magnificent aplomb. Breq’s attention often moves from a conversation she’s having to, for instance, a conversation going on elsewhere that Ship wants her to see. This often changes from paragraph to paragraph but is rarely confusing. Leckie is a tremendously capable writer.

And there is so much world to explore. If you’re the reading type who loves that feeling of falling into another world and becoming enveloped by it these books are for you. There are so many details I have to keep myself from going into if I don’t want this to become a 2,000 word review. And they’re all so fascinating! So many societal conventions. Radchaai always wear gloves. It is the height of uncleanliness and impropriety not to do so. Tea is the cornerstone of civilization. “Radch” itself means “civilization.” To be Radchaai means to be civilized. Oh, this is a conquering galactic empire calling themselves the “civilized.” Yeah, you see where this is going. But trust me on the worldbuilding. It’s a dream.

The one thing I very much missed, though, were the interactions between Breq and Seivarden, her fighting companion and ally from the first book, who is left behind on Ship while Breq goes to Athoek.

“But Ships do love people. I mean, particular people.” For some reason saying that made her [Seivarden] nervous, triggered a tiny spike of apprehension in her.

Because she wants to be your particular person, you silly!  Ugh, these two. Also, I am apparently the only person who actually wants there to be some sort of romantic thing between Breq and Seivarden because of course I do. But even if nothing ever happens I adore their strong friendship and the certain kind of love that they do have for each other.

And I am so fascinated by the creeping horror of the concept of the ancillaries. Sure, the person is dead and it’s now an expendable replaceable body. Ship won’t be hurt if an ancillary body dies. A new body will be taken from the stores and activated. But ancillary bodies still have human reactions and the ships certainly do form attachments. Here’s a passage after an ancillary sees her captain is seriously injured:

Its voice and its face were of course expressionless, but tears welled in its eyes, whether from pain or from something else it was impossible for me to know. I could guess, though.

It’s so creepy and haunting and fascinatingly sad on several levels and I love that this series isn’t afraid to look that horror straight in the eye.

Recommended for anyone who likes superbly crafted worlds, deftly complex characters, political machinations, badass space fights, a heaping helping of “made me think,” and a pinch of a the delightfully weird.

Translator Dlique was saying, very earnestly, “Eggs are so inadequate, don’t you think? I mean, they ought to be able to become anything, but instead you always get a chicken. Or a duck. Or whatever they’re programmed to be. You never get anything interesting, like regret, or the middle of the night last week.”

Indeed, Translator Dlique. Indeed.


An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.


kim teal










21 Responses to “Ancillary Sword: Review”

  1. E

    Hey, I’ve just started reading the first in the series (recommended by my darling father and brother). It’s all a bit opaque to me, and I had never heard of it either – now I see that I am just woefully behind the times. I didn’t read the review properly because I don’t want the SPOILER POTENTIAL, but I’ve been encouraged that you like it – I’m finding it hard to start properly.
    E recently posted…Wordless Wednesday 17th June 2015: From Decay to Soundness

  2. Octopus

    to avoid the confusion of “they” when reading a book about a spaceship with multiple bodies

    Thanks for pointing this out. The choice of ‘she’ rather than ‘they’ for the standard pronoun had been grating on me a little but this is an excellent point.

  3. Carina Olsen

    Ohh, sounds like an interesting book :D I’m glad you are loving this series Kim. <3 I love this review of yours. And the quotes are awesome :D Thank you so much for sharing about this book. <3 I might have to check out more about it ;p
    Carina Olsen recently posted…In My Mailbox #155

    • Kim

      It’s suuuuch a great series! So unique. And its rights just optioned for TV which I’m so happy to hear about. I hope something comes of that because it was make an amazing TV show. I hope you do look further into it. It’s a really kickass series!
      Kim recently posted…The Body Electric: Review

  4. Lily

    Ancillary Sword is completely new to me and I hadn’t heard of it before but i’m loving everything you have to say about it! I don’t typically read a lot of sci fi(I find it hard to connect with) but from what you have to say about the world building, plot and characters i’m pretty intrigued! Lovely review :)
    Lily recently posted…{Blog Tour} Even In Paradise: Author Interview

    • Kim

      Don’t forget! Read the first book ANCILLARY JUSTICE first! It just won the Hugo for Best Novel and is amaaaaaazing. If you don’t typically read a lot of sci-fi just have some patience with yourself and the book to get the lingo and understand the narrative shifts in the first book. Once you get the hang of things, though, you’re golden and in for a a very exciting ride!
      Kim recently posted…This Shattered World: blog tour sign-up

  5. Carmel @ Rabid Reads

    This title definitely has an original premise to it, I’ll give Leckie that! Ancillary is kinda a freaky concept even though granted, the bodies do have to come from somewhere. I don’t read a lot of Sci Fi, so I think that I might struggle with certain aspects of this story even though they are well done. Still, nice review!
    Carmel @ Rabid Reads recently posted…Early Review: Gray Bishop by Kelly Meade

    • Kim

      Yeah, it’s not really gateway sci-fi so there might be a struggle with it if you’re not used to the more hardcore stuff. For me (and I’m much more about the “F” in SFF than the “SF”) it was a matter of getting used to the gendered language and the narrative flow (the first novel skips back and forth in time). This book was actually much more straightforward. It’s well worth the patience to get into it! But no worries if it’s just not your thing. :)
      Kim recently posted…This Shattered World: blog tour sign-up

  6. Layla

    Oh my God you’re right I’m going to love this. I love good world-building and this seems incredible and also right up my alley in terms of its politics and imagination (yes, if we’re going to write sci-fi and set it in the future, or set it in outer space, why can’t we imagine different ways of being? This is one of the reasons I love Octavia Butler so goddamn much).

    Also, re: ancillaries, I am super interested in seeing how this plays out. (Even with the same ship inside it, does the character change through different ancillary bodies? I’m curious.) And I also really like that you’re happily shipping characters in this book, bahaha. The greatest.

    This also relates a tiny bit to our conversation on your last post, but have you ever played anything by Christine Love? If you like things that you can play on a Mac and are also interested in: embodiment, AI, queer stuff in the future in space, you might like Analogue: A Hate Story. It’s very text-heavy – basically, you play a space detective (my words, not the games) who’s responsible for finding out what happened to this ship, and you have to interview the AI and read through lots of logs and it’s a branching visual novel and it’s really good. Anyway, I kept on thinking about this while reading your post.
    Layla recently posted…Ancillary Sword: Review

    • Kim

      I really can’t wait for you to read these! I *know* you’re going to love it. I have not read Octavia Butler but she is on the list. I’m trying to make my way (slowly, very slowly) through NPR’s Top 100 Sci Fi and Fantasy because I really haven’t read much of the classics and this is to be fixed (but I also avoid the stuff I know to be overly misogynistic and terrible so it does cut a good deal out).

      Yesssss. The concept of the ancillaries is so well done. And your question is explored in the books so I won’t go into it much at risk of spoiling even a little bit. Some entities are more prone than others to experience change to different bodies. But you’ll see.

      I know. It’s so ridiculous. This is really not the type of story in which you ship anyone (I ship a ship! :D ) Neverthless, I do. I feel like a brave, stalwart defender. “Even when it is not even remotely the type of story in which you ship anyone, I will be there. Silent, eternal, carrying my ship into the abyss.” But anyway. Ann Leckie also found the, like, 2 pieces of Breq x Seivarden fan art that exist and she liked them very much! At least I’m not alone ha.

      Um. This game sounds amazing and I need to play it immediately.

      Please let me know asap as you finish ANCILLARY JUSTICE (and buckle in for that ride!)
      Kim recently posted…This Shattered World: blog tour sign-up

      • Layla

        Guess who found this book at Duke yesterday? ME ME ME ME ME. (The public library has like … 14 people on the list ahead of me, but then I checked Duke’s library, and we had it and no one wanted it! Ahahaha!! GLEE!)
        Layla recently posted…The Body Electric: Review

        • Kim

          Yaaaaaaasssssss. I’m so excited for you to read it!!! You’re going to love it. I am here for you and all of your inevitable Lt. Awn feels. All of the feels, really. Gah. Yay!
          Kim recently posted…The Body Electric: Review

  7. Nikki

    I’ve never heard of this series before but after reading your review I’m definitely going to be picking this up. It sounds AWESOME!

    • Kim

      Oh it’s soooooo good. Book 1 (Ancillary Justice) just won the Huge for Best Novel and it was so well deserved. A crazed, emotionally devastated spaceship stuck in the body of a single person and hellbent on revenge? Yes. Sign me up. Sign me very much up.
      Kim recently posted…This Shattered World: blog tour sign-up

    • Kim

      Heh. I’ve never heard of that book but it is a funny coincidence! (or maybe an influence on Ann Leckie?) that Breq could very much be called The Ship Who Sang. :) She is well known for her propensity to sing/hum all the time. Especially because her voice is terrible!

      Hope you enjoy these if you end up reading them!
      Kim recently posted…This Shattered World: blog tour sign-up