Ancillary Sword is the second book in the Imperial Radch series, an intergalactic saga featuring an imperialist, AI-controlled empire and a genderless society by way of words. The human and ancillary citizens aren’t biologically genderless, but do not use male identifiers. Everyone is “she”, “her”, “sister”, and “mother” as customary in the controlling Radch empire. The main character Breq is an ancillary unit. Once a great spaceship with hundreds of ancillary units (her conscience in human bodies meant for menial tasks aboard the ship), she was betrayed, destroyed, and reduced to one single human body. Now she’s bent on justice. Orbit | October, 2015 | Paperback | 356 pp
In Ancillary Justice, the story goes back and forth from Breq’s life as the starship Justice of Toren and her new life several years later as a single human ancillary looking for justice in the form of a special weapon. The Lord of the Radch, an AI with ancillaries, had broken apart. Instead of one unit, there were now factions of its own self warring with each other, and it didn’t want anyone to know. But Lieutenant Awn, the Captain of Justice of Toren, accidentally found out. Under orders from one of the Lord of the Radch ancillaries, Breq was ordered to execute her captain, the only person she truly loved. She did it. An AI can’t disobey orders, but overcome with emotion and grief, she then turned the gun on the Lord of the Radch. In an ensuing battle, Justice of Toren was destroyed with everyone on board, except for one solitary ancillary unit who had escaped in a pod. Now known as Breq, she’s an entire starship’s mind and 3,000 years of memories in one human body, and she’s hunting for a weapon that will destroy anything.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq has that weapon. She managed to become trusted by one of the Lord Radch’s personas and is made Fleet Captain. Her mission is to help restore peace in the empire. The Lord Radch doesn’t know she has the weapon, and hardly anyone knows that Breq is not actually human. She is given Lord Radch’s family name, given command of Mercy of Kalr, and sent to Athoek, a planet annexed by the empire hundreds of years earlier. One of the factions was destroying intersystem gates, and Breq’s mission is to stop more gates from going down. Although she hates the Lord Radch, there is someone on Athoek she desperately wants to see.
As Fleet Commander using the same last name as Lord Radch, Breq commands obedience and respect from all who meet her. Some view her as a curiosity, others as an imposter. Not many know what to believe when they find out that the Lord Radch is split. If she is split, who is to be trusted? Either way, it’s an impossible position. Obey the wrong faction and be accused of treason by the other, disobey a direct order and it’s treason again, no matter which faction.
Right away, Breq sees problems. A new baby-faced Lieutenant is sent along with Breq who discovers she is nothing more than one of Lord Radch’s ancillaries sent as a spy. Breq orders her implants forcibly removed and works on building her new lieutenant up from scratch. She finds the one person on Athoek station she wanted to meet, the sister of the beloved Lieutenant she murdered. Breq wants to protect her, but the sister wants nothing to do with Breq. The tea-pickers ‘downwell’ on the planet are being abused, someone is selling ancillary units and hiding the fact, a “ghost gate” nearby is dumping curious artifacts, and the captain of the other ship in the system is hiding something. As soon as Breq begins to investigate, a number of people want to eliminate her.
Ancillary Sword wasn’t as exciting as Ancillary Justice, but it was an interesting in-depth look at the politics of the Radch Empire. Apparently, the idea of being civilized is only achieved by being annexed by the Radch and drinking tea from fine tea things. An idea scoffed at by the tea-picking laborers downwell. They still harbor resentment at being forcibly annexed, as most populations would. There is a class hierarchy that can be climbed by taking aptitude tests as a child and advancing in society, but nepotism is also a problem.
Most people don’t know that Breq is an ancillary and used to be the Justice of Toren. No longer a ship with hundreds of ancillaries, Breq still feels disconnected, but she’s able to connect with her new ship and watch all of the conversations going on while indulging in her own conversations. So we get a lot of scene flipping while in the middle of one scene, which can be jarring to the reader. The other jarring issue is the use of all female pronouns and nouns. Author Leckie doesn’t make it obvious who is male or female and so your guess is as good as mine. I’m quite sure that Breq is, indeed, female – but I could still be wrong here.
Although Breq is an AI, that isn’t to say she doesn’t have human emotions. In the first book we learned that a ship would get so attached to its captain, that if the captain was killed the ship would become despondent and roam the universe alone in grief. Breq had a similar response to the death of her Lieutenant, but her response is wanting justice and revenge. In Ancillary Sword, Atheok Station (a space station around the planet) also has its own intelligence and it’s sick. With a good number of citizens living poorly and in hiding, Station is very unhappy. And when it is revealed that the captain of the other vessel has been up to no good, its ship’s AI will do anything to protect her.
I really do hope that the next book will bring us back around to Lord Radch. After all, Breq wandered the universe looking for a weapon to destroy her and she found it. I just want to see her use it. Although we didn’t get that in this second book, Ancillary Sword is a knock-out follow-up in the Imperial Radch series that dominates in the genre of artificial intelligence by fusing it with the perfect amount of human emotion.
by Ann Leckie