Ancillary Sword
February 23, 2018 11:27 AM - by Ann Leckie - Subscribe

The sequel to Ancillary Justice, the only novel to ever win the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and the second book in Ann Leckie's New York Times bestselling series. Breq is a soldier who used to be a warship. Once a weapon of conquest controlling thousands of minds, now she has only a single body and serves the emperor. With a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to go to the only place in the galaxy she would agree to go: to Athoek Station.

In Ancillary Sword, There Are Worse Things Than War with the Empire
Though Ancillary Sword takes place just a week after the action of Justice, the book's structure is almost the opposite of its predecessor. Justice followed ship-turned-humanoid Breq on a mission of revenge against her murderer. But Sword tags along with Breq on a variety of loosely-connected adventures as she waits for Emperor Mianaai's warring hive mind to make their next moves. As the novel opens, one half of Mianaai's hive mind has made Breq the equivalent of an admiral [ed: Commodore], giving her command of a ship — and command over other captains too. She's been sent to a remote tea plantation planet, whose strategic position next to several wormhole gates makes it a potential target.

Breq is in a dangerous position, unsure that she wants to ally with any of Mianaai's shattered parts, but forming a temporary alliance with one for the time being. At the same time, she's trying to forge a relationship with a ship again. This is particularly complicated because she's still mourning the loss of her own past as a ship with a hive mind of ancillaries. She struggles to integrate with her new ship and to connect with its crew of non-ancillaries, and we get some intriguing hints about what the love lives of ships are actually like.
'Ancillary Sword' Examines Life On The Fringes Of A Galactic Empire
It's to the benefit of Ancillary Sword that it doesn't seem to much care. After the deliberate but suspenseful Ancillary Justice, which was both a tricky character study and a thriller of small-stakes revenge on an accidentally vast scale, Ancillary Sword is, quite contentedly, a different beast. It quickly ties up lingering threads, and sends Breq out at the helm of a ship. She's assigned to a border station, where she'll contend with conflicts that the people in power would prefer to keep hidden, whether aboard station or on the planet below — and, amid the first whispers of war, both inside and outside the Empire.
A More Intimate Scale: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Sword is a more introspective book than its predecessor. Where Ancillary Justice married thriller and space operatic modes, here we have much more an extended meditation on power, and identity, and morality: a book about coming to a new place and finding yourself entangled in its politics and injustices old and new. In many respects Ancillary Sword mirrors the thematic movements of Ancillary Justice on a more intimate scale: it interrogates the imperialism of its setting, and holds up to scrutiny the usually-unexamined colonialism of so much space opera. Within Ancillary Sword, too, thematic concerns mirror themselves across several layers of the narrative: we see echoes of Anaander Mianaai’s treatment of Breq’s young Lieutenant Tisarwat in the situation of the inhabitants of Athoek Station’s Undergarden, and in that of the workers shipped in to labour on the tea plantations on the planet itself.
W. C. Bauers talks with Ann Leckie about ANCILLARY SWORD
WCB: ANCILLARY JUSTICE & SWORD both touch upon themes of colonialism, worker exploitation and social injustice. In your books, the plantation is alive and well, but the workers pick Rachhaai Tea instead of cotton. What inspired these particular elements of your storyline?

AL: So, actually, I did some research into how tea is actually grown, in the real world. In fact, the folks who pick tea are in a lot of cases not paid much at all, and sometimes live and work in horrendous conditions. Try this which is from February of this year--months after I turned in AS. So, that's a real thing. Tea is the number one drink in the world, not counting plain water, and it's hugely profitable for the folks who sell it. Not so much for the folks who actually make it.

And of course tea is heavily tied into colonial projects. The Indian tea industry is a result of the British wanting to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. They tried sneaking plants out to grow in India, but most of the plants died. Eventually they found a variety of Camellia sinensis growing in North East India, and it wasn't long before the first tea plantations were up and running.

And the workers on those plantations? Check out David Crole's Tea: A Text Book of Tea Planting and Manufacture with Some Account of the Laws Affecting Labour in Tea Gardens in Assam and Elsewhere (1897). ( In particular, check out the chapter called "The Coolie: His Ways and His Worth." Yeah. So, the "coolies" are the people who are actually picking the tea. And they've most of them signed contracts of indenture, committing them to several years of labor. Which supposedly those contracts have been carefully explained to them before they sign. But it becomes clear as the chapter goes on that the tea growers were absolutely not above misrepresenting the workers' obligations and/or rights under the law. And if the workers were unhappy and wanted to quit? They couldn't. Absent running away, which if the grower wanted, he could try to have them found and forcibly brought back.

When I was looking for information on tea culture, that sort of thing was impossible to miss. And it was very much part of what I was thinking of while I was writing.
posted by the man of twists and turns (10 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This is the first time I've noticed that we don't have Fanfare threads for Sword or Mercy. Thanks for correcting that, tmotat!
posted by tobascodagama at 11:33 AM on February 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

A lot of people have talked about the Ancillary series w.r.t. gender previously and the specific aspects of Leckie's work previously, but for me this book - the middle of the trilogy - hammered home that this series is about structures of power, especially Empire. previously.

One of the scenes that stood out to me early on was in the Undergarden, where Breq comes across a restuarant/tea shop serving authentic [ETHNIC GROUP] food, and one of the characters says something like "I thought we had that in some other part of the station?" and the proprietor sneers "No."

The Undergarden is both outside the normal Imperial surveillance and functions as a kind of escape-valve for the already-extant tensions of Athoek from before annexation. And it's very interesting how the Radch has overlaid itself on cultural traditions, adopted and adopted by the ruling class of Athoek, how locally-powerful characters use the semi-sighted forces of Empire to their own ends - how justice, propriety, and benefit are twisted, or seen through certain lenses, or from certain positions.

The colonialist forces are interested in tea, and transit, and bodies, and not much else - and as long as the local power structure provides them with such, they will be left to worship syncretic gods and reproduce colonialist oppression.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:10 PM on February 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

I went into this expecting more Big Space Opera, and I got some of that but way more "small scale drama" than I expected.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:59 PM on February 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

I find this novel tough to talk about in isolation. Narratively, it stands alone just fine. Thematically, though, it's intrinsically tied to the third book in the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy, to the point where I think of Sword and Mercy as almost two volumes of the same novel.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:25 PM on February 23, 2018 [9 favorites]

That's a good way to think about it - pacing-wise, I could totally see that.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:47 PM on February 23, 2018

I tend to think of it that way, as well. As a book *on its own*, I think it's the weakest of the three (by which, to be clear, I mean just good rather than mind-blowingly amazing). Viewed as half a novel with Mercy as the back end, it's as strong as anything else in the series.

I was also initially surprised by the turn the series took away from Classic Space Opera after the first book. Normal expectations would be that Our Protagonist would be at the forefront of the civil war, going on some special mission for the "better" Anaander Mianaai that ultimately results in, perhaps, the end of the empire. Instead, Breq goes to ... kind of a backwater, away from the main action, dealing mostly with local issues stemming from prejudice and colonialism. And the ultimate result seems almost like a tangent to where things started until you realize that it is ALL ABOUT Breq's personal perspective on an issue so deeply embedded in the culture that most people without that perspective would not even have realized it *was* an issue.

It was a brilliant, unexpected direction to go.
posted by kyrademon at 11:20 AM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

The colonialist forces are interested in tea, and transit, and bodies, and not much else - and as long as the local power structure provides them with such, they will be left to worship syncretic gods and reproduce colonialist oppression.

And hence the Empire continues. I think this is one reason why like Sword more than Justice; the latter showed us an Empire, the former shows us how it works, why it works, and illustrates the oppressiveness more than a tale of revenge could. Paradoxically, the tighter focus in Sword expands the scale of the conflict.

I think some interesting parallels could be made to The Last Jedi: Both take a concept revealed in an earlier work, and then expand the depth and scope of the problem. In neither, would reckless violence ultimately fix things.
posted by happyroach at 2:33 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of things I love about this book, and this series in general.

I love how we get a story from Breq's first-person perspective but thanks to her ancillary implants she also gets a third-person omnicient view of what's going on elsewhere.

I love how Breq and Mercy of Kalr bond in a deep way, as an Ancillary that lost her ship and a Ship that lost her ancillaries. I like the touches about how ships dote on and care for their ancillaries the same way a person takes care of their own body. I like how the crew of Mercy of Kalr loves their ship enough to pretend to be its ancillaries. I love this despite the fact that the very concept of ancillary soldiers is irredeemably gross and inhumane and evil.

I still don't understand why Anaander Mianaai has the monopoly on making copies of herself, especially given that it seems totally cool for Fosyf to clone herself a heir. Even if it's explicitly forbidden (I don't recall if the book ever specifically says nobody else is allowed to Anaander Mianaai themselves) I feel like it shouldn't be impossible for a sufficiently rich member of the Radch to clone themselves and stuff their clone full of knockoffs of the kind of implants behind ancillaries and Anaanders. Shit, If I were Anaander I'd probably allow people to do it in limited fashion just because it's easier to deal with the same group of people over millennia rather than a constant fresh crop of upstarts. I haven't read the third book yet, so this might already have been addressed. Who knows?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:12 PM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm coming to this series years late, and only about 80% of the way through this installment at this point but as I approach the end of the book I am starting to wonder whether the obsession with dishes is ever going to pay off..
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:05 PM on September 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

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