Ancillary Sword, book 2 of the Imperial Radch series, is not quite as awesome as Ancillary Justice--but that's not actually a bad thing, since "not quAncillary Sword, book 2 of the Imperial Radch series, is not quite as awesome as Ancillary Justice--but that's not actually a bad thing, since "not quite as awesome as its Hugo-winning predecessor" is still pretty freggin' awesome.
In book 2, we're picking up pretty much right where book 1 left off. Our protagonist Breq has been handed a Mercy and its crew, and has been tasked to protect the Athoek system. While doing that, she has to juggle dealing with a new lieutenant who's not the baby-faced young officer she appears to be, the potentially hostile officers and crew of the larger ship Sword of Atagaris, making peace with the sister of one of her slain officers from when she'd been Justice of Toren, class conflict on the space station and planetside--and the risk of angering the alien Presger when one of their diplomats is killed. And all of this is happening under the shadow of the threat of civil war across the Radch--by which we mean, war between the factions of the Lord of the Radch herself.
There's certainly no shortage of action, to be sure. At no point in this story was I ever bored. However, by comparison to book 1, I found Breq's jumping around from event to event in this plot less focused. There's no one particular big problem she has to solve in this story, and this gives everything a definite "middle book of a trilogy" feel. Given how book 1 ended, I came out of this one with an overall impression of the Lord of the Radch having just shunted Breq off out of the way, and a hope that the real action would pick up again in book 3.
So is this one Hugo-worthy? Unfortunately, I'm not convinced. It's really good, but that's not quite the same thing. It doesn't really break any new ground that Ancillary Justice hadn't already covered, and the lack of specific focus to the overall plot detracts from this book's ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor. Still, though, I enjoyed this immensely and will be eager to snap up Ancillary Mercy once it comes out later this year. Four stars....more
(Disclaimer before I begin: Sheryl and I are both Carina Press authors, and she has been featured on my site's Boosting the Signal column, promoting t(Disclaimer before I begin: Sheryl and I are both Carina Press authors, and she has been featured on my site's Boosting the Signal column, promoting this very book! This book was not, however, received as part of that column promotion, and I'm reviewing it on my own recognizance.)
Sheryl Nantus' Tales from the Edge series was pitched to me as heavily influenced by Firefly--and anything that invokes Firefly is a surefire way to get my attention. My Browncoat inclinations certainly see that influence right in the very title, since "the Black" is common parlance for space in that universe, and there's also a Marian Call song of this title! (Which you should listen to. But I digress!) Certainly the scenario is Firefly-like, with the action being set aboard the Bonnie Belle, a so-called Mercy ship whose task it is to bring a crew of courtesans to a mining outpost so the miners there can have some hard-earned time with them. And if you know Firefly at all, you'll also recognize the Guild that runs the Mercy ships as being reminiscent of the Companions, including giving the courtesans power to blacklist problem clients.
Nor did the book disappoint once it reeled me in. This is more or less SFR, but with rather less R than I expected. The primary plot is in fact a murder mystery, which erupts once the Belle docks at the mining outpost and one of the courtesans is discovered killed in her quarters. This gives the reader a rather tasty helping of intrigue as well, since there's bucketloads of drama as to how both the Guild and the mining outpost will handle the ensuing investigation. Our two lead characters, Captain Sam Keller and Marshal Daniel LeClair, are not terribly complicated characters. But they're likable and have good strong chemistry together, both from a romantic standpoint and from the standpoint of working together to investigate the murder.
And while there is indeed a romance between our two leads, it surprised me that there was actually no on-camera sex to be found--especially given that most of the action is taking place on board a Mercy ship. This is actually absolutely fine by me, because that's actually exactly how I like to see a romance handled. So mad props to Nantus for that, because she certainly revs the imagination with what Sam and Daniel get up to off-camera. For me as a reader, leaving those shenanigans to the imagination actually makes them more fun.
I should also mention that while the worldbuilding was a bit light, just enough to give you the scenario with the Mercy ships and with military trauma in our heroine's background, it was not non-existent. There's a nice scene between Sam and Daniel when he's telling her something of his own history, and he mentions growing up on Titan and swimming with other young people in a lake. Details were not heavily sketched in in this scene, but the simple fact that this was on Titan does raise rather interesting questions as to when Titan was terraformed in this particular universe.
I liked the supporting cast as well, though it was inevitable that I kept imagining the Belle's female engineer played by Jewel Staite and the ship's medic played by Sean Maher. I also kept imagining the ship's AI as voiced by Morena Baccarin and the senior courtesan in the crew as played by Gina Torres. Because what can I say? Browncoat.
And needless to say, I'll be reading Book 2 in this series very soon, since the aforementioned medic does in fact star in that installment. For this one, four stars....more
Before I continued my sweep of reviews of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel--and in particular, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, I had to go back and getBefore I continued my sweep of reviews of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel--and in particular, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, I had to go back and get caught up on Ancillary Justice. And wow, am I glad I did. I'm very late to the game on this book, but I can see why it won ALL THE THINGS last year. Much has been said already about what Leckie pulls off with this novel, not only with the gender-agnostic society occupied by the main characters, but also with the dual plotline involving our protagonist, Breq. But I do have some thoughts on both.
Re: the gender-agnosticism of the Radch, this didn't strike me as quite the Revelation(TM) as it might have done if I hadn't read Samuel Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. But I have, and so the notion of people referring to one another as "she" no matter what their actual physical gender wasn't particularly startling to me. I did appreciate how the worldbuilding allowed that even if the Radchaai's language was gender-agnostic, the people themselves still had physical gender; the author has herself described that the Radchaai are after all humans, so yes, they do still have actual physical gender. This is supported in the text, when non-Radchaai react to gender cues that Breq has to work to actually parse.
That said, I'm of two minds about it. Half of me certainly delighted in being able to read a story wherein, if I so chose, I could imagine every single character as female. The other half of me wishes that Leckie would have gone further and used truly neutral pronouns--while at the same time, with my writer hat on, I can understand how that might have made her book harder to digest for the vast majority of readers. We do, after all, live in a still predominantly two-gender society, and furthermore, one which still considers "male" the dominant gender. There are factions of SF readers who have trouble admitting that women can star in SF novels--never mind write them. Heads already explode at trying to handle that. Asking them to handle people who don't fit so easily into a gender binary is probably asking too much. (Though yeah, I'd like to see it happen anyway.)
And, re: the dual nature of the plotline in this book: yes, we've got a non-linear plot here, but one which has a coherent structure nonetheless, jumping back and forth between "present" time and a point twenty years prior. Once you get into the rhythm of it, you can follow along pretty clearly, even without obvious markers in chapter headers or anything of that nature. I appreciated that the book expected me to be clever enough to keep up.
But all of the above pertains to worldbuilding and plot structure. What about our protagonist? I loved Breq/One Esk Nineteen/Justice of Toren, and the entire notion of her being one segment of an entire ship's consciousness. The book does a wonderful job at portraying what that multiplicity is like, even as it throws strong implications at you about the horrifying practices that make ancillaries for Swords and Mercies and Justices in the first place. But Breq in general is an awesome character, both as a ship and as the now-sole ex-ancillary bent on killing the Lord of the Radch. Breq's body may be human (and there are hints that that body's original personality might be recoverable), but her consciousness is not. Yet there are little quirks and nuances throughout Justice of Toren's portrayal that tell you that the Ship has had literal centuries of time to absorb personality traits from all of its ancillaries. And to be sure, I'm particularly partial to how Justice of Toren liked to sing. Often with multiple mouths at once.
I do have to admit that despite the gender-agnosticism of Radchaai society, I kept looking for cues as to the genders of characters--notably, Seivarden, but others as well. I caught myself doing it, and in fact tried to force myself not to once I realized what I was doing, because I think that was part of the book's overall point. Though in Seivarden's case, gender cues are in fact explicitly called out early on, and it's obvious that Seivarden is in fact male. (And now, writing about that character, I find myself actively torn between saying 'her' and saying 'him' because HA YES I see you what did there, Leckie.)
Plot-wise, I found the whole thing very focused, honed to crystalline clarity, with the dual plots ultimately leading to an intriguing and explosive resolution. Breq's grudging caring for Seivarden is an excellent counterpoint to the drama that unfolds on Shis'urna, and Justice of Toren's eventual destruction, with One Esk Nineteen as the only survivor. Overall, it was a distinct pleasure to read, particularly as preparation for going straight into Ancillary Sword. Five stars.
(Editing to add: and OH YES, I totally forgot to mention: in the Ancillary Justice Movie In My Brain, Breq is totally played by Summer Glau.)...more