#CBR7 Review #3-4 – Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword
Target: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) and Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2)
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera
After Action Report:
The Imperial Radch series is a relatively simple little space opera, in the classic sense of the term. Spanning hundreds, if not thousands of years, multiple star systems and a variety of cultural influences, it’s a series firmly rooted in the tropes of its genre. While Ancillary Justice does wonderful things with those ideas and concepts, building a surprisingly compelling setting and cast, the series as a whole is somewhat underwhelming. Lacking the bombast of James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse or the vision of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, Imperial Radch sits in an uncomfortable place between top-tier SF and the middle of the road dross that clogs the shelves at Barnes and Noble.
Ancillary Justice follows Breq, also known as Justice of Toren, One Esk, a surviving fragment of the controlling AI of an interstellar warship. A portion of Justice examines Breq’s life as the ship Justice of Toren before it was destroyed, while the main narrative picks up after Breq has been on her own for years, executing a long plan that might make up for some of the mistakes she made as Justice of Toren. The PoV snaps back and forth between the present and the past until we witness the moment of Justice of Toren’s destruction. After which we shift entirely to Breq on her mission of justice and vengeance.
Leckie does some very interesting things in this first book, from exploring the mental processes of artificial intelligences to cultural comparisons between various offshoots of humanity in this distant future. One particular aspect that has received a lot of critical attention is the genderless language of the Radch Empire. Gaining her positive comparisons to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Leckie deliberately created a culture that ignores gender, referring to all individuals as ‘she/her’ in the book, though it is assumed that the actual word being used is a gender neutral pronoun that is being translated into English as ‘she’. In spite of the praise she has received, the comparison isn’t actually valid. Le Guin’s Gethen are actually androgynous in both personality and gender, whereas the Radch still have genders, but don’t culturally recognize that those genders are pertinent and, as a side effect, are bad at identifying gender in other cultures.
In spite of the invalid comparisons, Leckie’s Radch Empire is a very interesting society to read about. Based on the protective necessity of conquest and ruled by a single collective intelligence disturbed through hundreds of clone bodies, Radch is, in many ways, a highly likely configuration of interstellar empire. Leckie does a wonderful job of exploring the mechanisms of a culture that is fundamentally oriented around conquest, from integrating new cultures into the society of the Radch, to the economic and political realities of an ever-expanding sphere of territory.
Justice concludes with a revelation that derails Breq’s quest and shifts her role from lone wolf-style agent of vengeance to a hybrid detective/paladin with the directive to maintain order throughout the Radch and the authority and autonomy to do so without oversight. Which is where the narrative picks back up in Ancillary Sword. Sword’s storyline is much less compelling than Justice’s, partly because this new version of Breq is much less interesting. Stripped of her original mission and, inadvertently, her nemesis, Breq flounders as a character. Leckie seems to have trouble aligning the character with her new mission and the story loses much of its forward momentum without Breq’s singular drive, advancing more by random chance than anything else. Breq stumbles onto ongoing problems in a new star system and stumbles onto solutions to those problems without any apparent effort.
Part of the issue with Sword is the tonal shift of the narrative from ‘I’m on a mission’ to ‘space detective story.’ There were aspects of Justice that could have been detective stories, but they were glossed over in favor of building Breq’s motivation and personality. There were times in Sword when I felt like I wasn’t even reading the same series, let alone a direct sequel. I suppose it is possible that the book is suffering from some sort of variant on the middle book syndrome that sometimes crop up in longer SF/Fantasy series, but it honestly doesn’t feel like Leckie is building towards anything either. The antagonists in Sword are particularly uninspiring, lacking both the menace and the ambition that Anaander Mianaai had in Justice. It feels like a bait and switch, where the supervillain we’d been hoping would receive their just comeuppance was suddenly replaced by the used car salesman down the road. Not nice to be sure, but not worthy of epic justice either. Leckie also gets bogged down in rehashing worldbuilding elements throughout the book, taking too much time elaborating on existing concepts and not introducing enough new material.
When I was drafting this review, I initially wanted to review each book separately to give the credit to Justice without dissuading the reader from the greater Imperial Radch series. But I kept coming back to talking about the shortcomings of the second book. So, am I doing a disservice to Ancillary Justice by combining its review with that of its substantially less fulfilling successor? Or would separating the reviews be robbing my readers of the more complete picture? I still don’t know the answer, but for Imperial Radch, I couldn’t have the conversation I wanted to have without discussing both books. Regardless, I will definitely be reading Ancillary Mercy when it drops, and I hope that Sword’s lackluster write-up won’t deter you from doing the same. There is a kernel of quality here that should be praised regardless of the individual pieces in the sequence.