Reading: Ann Leckie — Ancillary Sword

The sequel! Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was one of my Books of the Year barely more than a week ago, and for my trip out to Waldsieversdorf I had Ancillary Sword in my backpack (and Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood, perfect Waldlesenstückchen). I portioned it out, even to the point when I knew one day with it would be my last that I did everything I could think of (went for long ride in the forest, cleaned a bit, wrote an application, read Bynum, lalala, distraction, prepared cheese and bread and ginger tea …) to stall the moment of the last page’s arrival.

Leckie had an unenviable task with Sword, coming on the heels of her debut that won all the awards, and with so much attention on her and this sequel. I’ve read a few writers who seem to have only one brilliant book in them: their first. Leckie isn’t one of them, though possibly suffers a bit from this: Sword isn’t as good as Justice. Let’s compare for a minute the second book of the person whose name has been mentioned frequently around Leckie and Justice: Iain Banks’ Walking on Glass. Ancillary Sword not Leckie’s Glass.

What I wanted I only partly got: space opera, more history of the Ancillaries, more of the Radch, more of Anaander Mianaai, more of the wonderful and destabilising Breq. Yes, Breq is there the whole time; it’s her story. What is missing for me in this middle part of the trilogy (which if I recall Leckie wrote largely at the same time as Justice), is the discovering of this character’s history and world.

This is a broad criticism I have of trilogies, something that seems to be embedded in the culture that produces them even, that the first part is where the protagonist discovers herself and her place (or her powers and abilities). The subsequent parts are only working with these gains, and scant new is added. This is the case for Star Wars to Matrix, even to other lesser known trilogies or series I’ve been reading: by the end of the first part everything is substantially set up and the narrative merely works within that. A good comparison to this is Avatar: The Legend of Korra (or also The Last Airbender (animation series, not film). Each season the Avatar must learn a new element, which precludes any possibility of them completing their discovery and backstory in the way that is problematic so often in trilogies.

Ancillary Sword is a good work, and I did enjoy it a lot. It just seemed to be missing some of what made Justice so special, as if we didn’t need to hear any more of the details of the world, which for me at least after only one novel I wouldn’t have got bored with even reading the same thing over again. I also loved the gendering—which also didn’t seem so noticeable as in the first book, or maybe I’m used to it and it just seems normal and inevitable.

The third part is not out until next year, so I’ll probably have to re-read both of these at some time. Anyway, I did think on more than one occasion that Iain Banks would have been delighted, and that I hope Leckie keeps exploring this world and others because she’s bloody good at what she does.