Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary sword Book Cover Ancillary sword
Imperial Radch #2
Ann Leckie
Science fiction, space opera
Oct 7 2014

I already wrote this review once, and had it eaten by tech, which is always infuriating enough to sort of put me off the whole thing.  But I have to talk about this book.

But first I'm going to talk about the first book, Ancillary Justice, which won basically all of this year's awards, and became known, I think, mostly for its pronoun-gender-thing.

It's not a spoiler. If you hear anything about these books, you'll hear about the gender thing.   Ann Leckie gives us a vast universe and the Radchaai empire, whose culture we learn about through scattered details: They keep their hands covered in polite company, they drink tea,  their starships are built according to this-and-that classes and standards - and their language, the language of our narrator, is constructed without gendered pronouns. The default is she.  Everything is she and her; mother and daughter.

I've known people who just couldn't read the book, as they found this too infuriating / confusing / stupid / etc.  Me, though,  I think it's absolutely brilliant.  At the start of the first book, I did try hard to puzzle out the genders of the characters, believing the author probably intended it as a clever guessing game. One that would be rewarded as the plot unfolded.

The great thing is; it's not.  I quit the guessing game once I saw that:  The genders of the characters were completely, utterly unimportant.  Knowing it wouldn't change a thing about the events unfolding.

And that kind of knocked the breath out of me, as I've never seen that message - that gender is entirely irrelevant to character - communicated and illustrated so very, very clearly, before.  I'm so happy to see it, and, consequently, so happy to spend time inside this universe.

(Of course, this language detail works several purposes: It makes it very clear that the Radchaai are alien in this detail that differs from most current human languages. It also shows, beautifully, how language shapes thought.  The narrator simply doesn't consider gender - when speaking languages with gendered pronouns, she often gets it wrong.)

I don't want to talk about plot, because it's a second book, and you really do need to read the first one before this. I can tell you the story picks up where the first book left off, new and intricate characters are introduced, new questions and mysteries and political conundrums are there for Breq, the narrator and protagonist, to solve, in her own characteristic manner.

The book wraps up neatly, though of course the series arc is looming, rattling its yet unanswered questions.  It's the best possible second-in-a-series: I'm satisfied and content, but I very eagerly want more, too.

Should you read it? If you read Ancillary Justice and loved it, yes, obviously.  (And should you read Ancillary Justice? Yes, if you're into somewhat philosophical space opera adventure with a smattering of AI, clones, military campaigns, intrigue, very alien aliens, and whatnot.)

Should you not read it?  Well, do you get those annoyed twitches just thinking about the gender thing? Do you usually feel little or no interest in military SF / space opera?  Of course - there are better books for you, out there.  But, well, maybe you should try it anyway. Just sayin'.

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