Warning: spoilers for Ancillary Justice. If you haven’t read the first book yet (OMG WHY NOT), avert your eyes right now.
It’s probably not...moreWarning: spoilers for Ancillary Justice. If you haven’t read the first book yet (OMG WHY NOT), avert your eyes right now.
It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that all SFF eyes are on this book right now. Given the immense success of Ancillary Justice – it won all the major awards and yes, this includes a rare Book Smugglers Double Ten Review – I bet everybody is thinking: will the sequel be as good as the first novel?
Well, the answer is a resounding HELL YES.
From a plotting perspective, Ancillary Sword is at first glance, a rather straightforward affair. The story picks up where we left off at the end of Ancillary Justice with The Lord of the Radch still at war with herself and Breq as a newly-minted ship captain on her way to Athoek Station, where Lieutenant Awn’s sister lives. At the station, Breq gets involved with the station’s day-to-day management and with the petty – and not so petty – relationships between its different sections. At the end of the day though, Breq is there to make amends – to atone for what she did to her beloved Lieutenant Awn.
The first thing to note about Ancillary Sword is how it has a largely linear narrative and a very limited point of view. One of the most important aspects of Ancillary Justice was its alternating narrative between the now and the then, with the latter offering a taste of what it was like for Breq to have its consciousness split between multiple viewpoints. This is all but gone in Ancillary Sword and all we are left with is the Breq from now – the Breq that needs to come to terms with the fact that she is now a one-bodied ancillary (an ongoing journey started 20 years prior to the events in Ancillary Justice). She is occasionally able to experience multiple-bodied viewpoints that the ship Mercy of Kalr shares with her (and Ann Leckie continues to handle that head-hoping with aplomb) but those moments are brief and almost too elusive and end up amplifying Breq’s sense of separateness.
This is perhaps the most striking thing about Ancillary Sword: how it manages to be a deeply personal, emotional book without losing track of any of the larger issues that continue to be explored here. Breq is an AI, not human – and it’s interesting that the sense of her being not-entirely human really hit me more strongly here in this second book, ironically, just as Breq becomes more and more human. Although one could – and should – make the argument that the AIs and the ancillaries and the ships in this series are not completely separate, emotionless beings. The moments that resonate the most are in fact, the ones when these supposedly unemotional beings show they have a remarkable sense of compassion, justice and feeling than the supposedly civilised Radchaai should have and in fact, are said to be the only ones to have.
This is one of the strongest ongoing themes in these books: the examination of what it means to be a Citizen, what it means to be civilised, with a confrontation of internalised assumptions and prejudices from both a personal and social point of view.
That all of this happens whilst Breq not only investigates threats from aliens as well as from internal forces within the empire but also confronts aspects of the Radchaai that include the hidden truths of exploitation and slavery of different peoples? It’s basically genius. GENIUS, I say, because the narrative might be linear, might be reduced to mostly Breq’s one point of view but it still captures SO MUCH, in a complex way that is, at the end of the day, also incredibly fun.
I could list a few criticisms: perhaps there is some unnecessary, repetitious considerations from Breq. Perhaps, the question of slavery was more heavy-handed than necessary (or perhaps not, some things should be faced HEAD-ON after all). THERE WAS NOT ENOUGH BROODING SEIVARDEN. But to me, those are minor flaws in an otherwise perfect book. Once more with feeling: ALL THE AWARDS. And also a top 10 spot for me.
Please allow me a brief moment to be incredibly unprofessional and fangirly because holy effing crap. Ancillary Sword, you are amazing.
I have to add my voice to Ana’s, singing the praises of both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword and marveling awestruck and stupefied by Ann Leckie’s writing prowess. Holy effing crap.
Can I take a step back and examine the text in context? As Ana says, Ancillary Justice won ALL the awards last year – taking home the Nebula Award, BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Locus Award, and the Hugo Award. This is success on a near unprecedented scale, especially for a debut full-length novel. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of expectation when it comes to follow-up novel Ancillary Sword. How could anything top the glorious mind-bending, challenging, award-winning marvel that is Ancillary Justice?
Perhaps Ancillary Sword doesn’t quite live up to the same rush, the same unexpected in-your-face challenge that Ancillary Justice posed – but it’s still an amazing, thrilling, provocative novel that forces readers to question their own humanity. And I loved it. OH, how I loved it.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq – the Artificial Intelligence that was once grand starship Justice of Toren, brought low to a single body, hungry for vengeance – has been given its own command and her own mission by none other than Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch. On her new ship, the Mercy of Kalr, Breq makes quick use of power as Captain as it sets course for a distant star system in an “uncivilized” part of the galaxy. There are conflicts aplenty in Ancillary Sword as Breq deals with administering its power on its new ship (without becoming too enmeshed in the consciousness of said ship), the inter-personal tensions of the Radch and the Lord of the Radch’s own splintering consciousness, the tensions and conditions of colonized people on a distant planet (a parallel to the enslavement and former forced ancillary procurement of conquered peoples), and the appearance of a new external threat that can challenge Radchaii hegemony.
Needless to say, there’s a LOT going on in Ancillary Sword. And yet, for all of these plot threads, this second book is one that is extraordinarily intimate. As Ana says, a large part of this is because we are now with Breq as it is now, without the alternating narrative into the past. We, readers, are entreated to Breq’s current thoughts and feelings, its emotions and burning sense of justice and understanding of anger as it deals with tensions both personal and interstellar. It’s also kind of funny, because though Ancillary Sword is a much more intimate book, it’s also one that illuminates just how different Breq is – not quite human, but a far cry from the conscienceless killer robots, or the anthropomorphized human-like androids of science fiction’s past. Breq is… Breq. The development of this particular character and its struggles – I particularly want to call attention to Breq’s reluctance to entwine fully with its new ship, and Breq’s treatment of Lord of the Radch ancillary Tisarwat – are the driving factors that make Ancillary Sword so successful and resonant. At least they are in my mind.
On the plotting and overall trilogy arc-moving front, Ancillary Sword is, admittedly, a bit weaker than its predecessor. There are plot threads aplenty in this second book, but there’s also a bit of heavy-handedness (particularly when it comes to the effects of colonialism in space), and a sense of in-between-ness as there are so many stories to be resolved in the next book.
These quibbles are but footnotes, though, to a truly spectacular sophomore novel. I loved Ancillary Sword, truly, madly, deeply. It is absolutely a top 10 pick for me this year, deserving of all the awards, and all of the praise.
Do yourself a favor and read it immediately, Citizen.
Imagine Bulikov, a city that was once a commanding stronghold of Gods and Goddess, where impossibly tall buildings s...moreOnce upon a time. In illo tempore.
Imagine Bulikov, a city that was once a commanding stronghold of Gods and Goddess, where impossibly tall buildings shone in the skyline, from where a people ruled the world it had conquered by the grace of those Divinities.
Imagine that city now, where events in living memory have transformed its very core, its once powerful people subjugated by one of its very own enslaved colonies, forbidden to study and learn their own history, their Divinities killed and those beautiful buildings literally disappeared before their very eyes.
Imagine Saypur, that risen colony, once a poverty-stricken backwater, denied power, agency and the grace of gods, now a geopolitical power with the necessary technology to take over the world. The once conquered has become the conqueror and the “once upon a time” becomes “what happens next.” Imagine a narrative that takes exactly that revolution, examines it from the bottom up, placing the people it affects, on both sides, at centre stage. Imagine a narrative that says not only that the “now” is being written in front of our very eyes but also that the once upon a time was not actually, a perfect fairytale with a happily ever after.
That imagined world is the setting for City of Stairs: a book that takes complex themes like colonialism, oppression, religion and systems of belief and weaves them into a story that is part fantasy noir, part murder investigation, peppered with humour and tragedy, hope and adventure, magic and twists, with female characters of all ages who lead the story and develop strong bonds of friendship with each other, in which most characters are people of colour, and where cultural, social and religious history are at centre stage and holy shit, was this book good. It ostensibly starts as a murder investigation when Shara Divani, a super-spy, diplomat and amateur historian from Saypur arrives in Bulikov and is plonked – along with the reader – into this multi-layered world of hidden truths, twisted narratives and supposedly dead divinities.
And it feels like it was almost inevitable that I’d fall in love with this book and especially with Shara, because how could I not – hello, super-spy, diplomat, amateur historian – given the depth and intricacy of the narrative built around her? Shara is truly and really from Saypur and as such is a person with her idiosyncrasies and someone who isn’t completely immune to the beliefs of her own people. But she is also someone who has been away, who has visited other places and learned other truths– torn between what she has always known, what she has been told and what she has effectively learned in the years since she has been exiled from her own home for political reasons.
Truth and knowledge will set you free, Shara’s journey tells us and in a book that shows the way that censorship, forgotten history and prohibited knowledge impact the very fabric of reality and the lives of the people who live in Bulikov. And because nothing in this world comes without consequences anything that affects Bulikov also affects Saypur because of course it does, since this a multifaceted, realistic, intricate co-dependent system.
City of Stairs is just shy of utter perfection for two reasons. The second half comes with several moments of clunky exposition in marked contrast with the sophisticated first half of the novel. It actually dangerously veers toward “idiot lecture” i.e. let’s make sure our readers understand exactly what we are doing here.
The other reason regards Sigrud, a secondary character who is the stereotypical Brawny Invincible Tortured Hero With a Hidden Past that is almost out of place with his Aragorn-like storyline in the middle of what is an otherwise refreshing take on Fantasy. Thankfully, he never completely overshadows Shara’s spotlight.
Finally, it behoves me to say that when it comes to the examination of the relationship between faith and power City of Stairs is, thematically speaking, cousin to other recent books that I have also loved: N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead. All three are highly recommended and City of Stairs, in spite of the criticisms above, is a Notable Read 2014 and a possible contender for a top 10 spot. (less)
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In Real Life, this new graphic novel written by Cory Doctorow with art by Jen Wang is full of them. In...moreThe road to hell is paved with good intentions. In Real Life, this new graphic novel written by Cory Doctorow with art by Jen Wang is full of them. In its heartfelt introduction, Cory Doctorow says that In Real Life is about game and economics, about the – political, economical, social – choices that we make on a daily basis and their consequences. About how social media and the Internet can potentially shape and change the world.
The book portrays how Anda – the shy and lonely main character trying to fit in at her new school – starts playing Coarsegold Online, a MMRPG (for the non-initiated: massively-multiplayer role playing game) and gets involved with the real-life consequences of playing it.
There are, I think, three aspects of the novel worth exploring. First of all, the clear and welcomed feminist message of the book. Anda starts playing it after a school visit by one of the game’s organisers who talks about the rise of female gamers, the problems encountered by them (sexism, misogyny) ending with a call-to-arms in which girls are specifically invited to play with female avatars.* The idea is that Coarsegold Online provides a welcoming and safe environment in which to do so. The story then follows Anda as she becomes more confident and develops relationships with other female gamers as well as other girls at her own school. This part of the book? Wonderful.
Also great: Anda’s journey toward self-awareness and a larger comprehension about the complicated world at large. Whilst gaming, she becomes involved with Gold Farming. In the book, she befriends two other characters: one of them co-opts Anda into killing in-game gold famers (an illegal practice within the game); the other is a gold farmer himself, who turns out to be a poor kid from China, working in extremely poor conditions in a gold farming factory. This prompts Anda into realising the consequences of what she does on her side of the Atlantic, how it impacts other people then eventually spiralling into political activism. Whilst I appreciated very much Anda’s personal journey of self-awareness, I have serious misgivings about how this is actually dealt with in the book, which brings me to the third aspect of the novel I’d like to expand on – the one that made me angry and a little bit horrified.
Now, Gold Farming is a real-life economic phenomenon in which players (often located at third world countries) can collect in-game valuable objects to sell them to other players (often in first world countries) for real money. This has rippling effects within gaming – leading to extreme prejudice against non-English speaking players as well as outside gaming: it has been reported that Gold Farming has become not only a lucrative business but one that usually involves extremely poor working conditions and exploitation of underprivileged workers.
Needless to say, this is an extremely complex topic and I find it that depicting and addressing it with any real depth would have been difficult to start with in any scenario, but within a short graphic novel with less than 200 pages and exclusively from the perspective of a privileged American character? Probably not the best idea ever.
This is how this plays out in In Real Life:
Anda befriends Raymond – a 16-year-old Chinese kid who barely speaks English and works at a gold farming factory. Cue to a clumsy dialogue in which Raymond tells Anda everything about his terrible circumstances: he works the night shift for 12 hours every night because his family doesn’t have money to send him to college (the alternative would be to work at a zipper factory, which is worse). He hurt his back lifting boxes at his previous job and since the gold farming factory doesn’t offer medical insurance, he sometimes have to excuse himself to go to the bathroom so he can lie on the floor a little while and rest – he has a friend who has good hands and offers massages in exchange for cigarettes.
CUE TO ANDA’S ANGST.
Not Raymond’s, Anda’s. It’s her duty to protect him, so she will do everything to save him from his terrible life, to his eternal gratitude. And despite being a young kid herself and knowing nothing of the world or Raymond’s real circumstances, she decides to research. So SHE finds about local doctors he could go to and tell him to go to his coworkers and tell everyone they need to demand health care together or they will go on strike. This leads to Raymond getting fired.
CUE TO ANDA’S ANGST.
Not Raymond’s, Anda’s. Anda lying in her comfortable bed saying how the world is a cruel place. How it was HER FAULT FOR MAKING HIM BELIEVE THINGS WOULD BE OK.
She then decides to get up and do more. She puts together a team of other privileged players, then:
“I don’t know what is like to live in China and I don’t know what’s like to be a gold farmer but I do know what’s like to a kid who loves video games. If you would give me a chance, I will do anything to help you get him back. If you really care about him, you will help me spread this message”.
The message is something she wrote, a call to action to other Chinese workers so they CAN FIGHT FOR THEIR RIGHTS. Which they do. And everything is ok in the world and Anda is HAILED as the hero who stands up for what is right.
In the end, Raymond comes back. With a brand new Avatar, looking like prince charming, speaking almost perfect English, saying how things are better at his old job and how he was offered a new, better job by a random guy at an Internet café. The end. Everything is ok now.
NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.
I understand the author’s intentions and completely sympathise with and admire them. I think there is a lot that is worth of praise here including the beautiful artwork by Jen Wang. However, as explored above, I don’t think those intentions were communicated well into the book. I felt utterly uncomfortable (to put it very mildly) about the depiction of the Chinese characters’ plight and the lack of viewpoint from their perspective – the stress on Anda’s feelings rather than Raymond’s about his own situation is problematic to the extreme and reeks, REEKS of white saviour complex and American superiority (cue me rolling my eyes when Anda was all horrified at the lack of proper health insurance in China when in America things are not exactly rainbows and ponies, are they.) In addition, this extremely complex situation has been simplified to the extreme with the throwaway ending.
*Fucked-up fact about the world we live in: Cory Doctorow can write anything and criticise male gamers all he wants and he will probably get little to no flack for it. Meanwhile, Anita Sarkeesian puts forth the same message and criticisms and is attacked, humiliated and threatened ↩(less)