Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice was a huge breakout novel that vanquished all comers during awards season. It racked up wins from Locus, the BSFA, the Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. As you might imagine, the recently published sequel, Ancillary Sword, was eagerly awaited. I enjoyed the first book despite some reservations, so I was really hoping this one would shore up some of the lacking elements of its predecessor. What I got was completely unexpected.
This is a really odd novel. It picks up where the first book left off, with Breq accepting a commission as an officer in Anaander Mianaai's fleet and leading an expedition to... a space station with some minor strategic importance. There she butts heads with the local forces, led by one Captain Hetnys, and otherwise gets embroiled with various bits of local politics.
Like it's predecessor, this book is somewhat lacking in plot, though I will say that it does become somewhat tighter as a result. Unlike it's predecessor, many of the interesting things about the first book have been jettisoned. The complex non-linear narrative is gone. The first book's heady mix of hard and soft SF has shifted much more to the soft SF side. Many of the most intriguing things about the first book, particularly the ambitious exploration of hive minds and what that means for identity, while present, aren't really expanded upon in any real way. When Anaander Mianaai's condition is revealed in the first book, it opened up many tantalizing opportunities... that are almost completely bypassed in this sequel. The mysterious alien presence of the Presger was hinted at in the first book, and while the Presger's ambassador plays a significant role in this book, we still don't really get much in the way of information on the Presger. Even some of the softer ideas, like the way Radch culture doesn't distinguish between the sexes, calling everyone by female pronouns, aren't really expanded on at all. I suppose we get some closer looks at Radch society, but little beyond what we already knew.
It's a decidedly low-key approach that is not entirely unwelcome, but which makes me wonder where Leckie is trying to go with this series. It started off as a series filled with interesting ideas and an epic scope, and yet, it's all shaken down to this rather simple story that doesn't seem to really advance the series all that much. I suppose the implication is that the events of this book are happening all over the Radchaai Empire, which would make sense. And it's not really bad per say, it's just unexpected. Conceptually, I think this is something that could have worked really well, lots of crunchy ideas on a smaller, close-up scale. Alas, all of the interesting ideas originate in the first book and aren't expanded upon very much in this sequel.
The book has a more episodic approach than its predecessor, and many of the individual episodes are quite good. The opening reveals Breq to be a capable leader who immediately recognizes the deception of one of her officers. There's a great sequence where a pissed off Breq goes to the armory for target practice. Since she is a thousand of years old AI, she's pretty good at it, leading to some slackjawed crew members (Seivarden memorably notes: "Fleet Captain is pretty fucking badass.") Some of the incidents at the space station are less successful, though there are plenty of interesting bits about the formality of Radch society. There's a decent enough courtroom drama at one point, and several other interesting tidbits here or there. Leckie's not particularly great at action, but there's not a ton of action here anyway and she gets the job done. Many of the new side characters are pretty fantastic. Alas, when you add it all up, it's merely the sum of its parts, nothing more.
So I have mixed feelings about this. There are many bits to like, and I will say that it seems to be aging well in my head, but I don't think it's quite the equal of its predecessor either. It's almost certainly going to appear on the Hugo ballot next year, but I'm doubting that it will win. One other side note: I listened to this on audio book, and I hated the reader. She was fine most of the time, but for certain characters, particularly the ones we're not supposed to like, she puts on this ridiculous, high pitched, exaggerated cockney accent (I think). That wouldn't be a disaster if she didn't use the exact same voice for multiple characters, and if the story weren't so talky (which it really is, and it gets kinda weird when Breq is speaking with two of the weirdly accented people). Just a fair warning, you'd probably be better off reading this one rather than listening.