Top positive review
Impressive, impressive writing
Reviewed in the United States on July 2, 2018
This second book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy fully lives up to the first— not always easy when the first book gets to present the reader with the author’s world and characters for the first time, and the second just continues the story. [In Ms. Leckie’s case, it really didn’t help that the first book had won just about every major award known to science fiction— how do you follow that???]
This isn’t your standard space opera, although it obviously has aspects of one (interstellar travel, spaceships and space stations and the like). The writing is too dense, so that it requires you to pay attention. She doesn’t spoon feed her readers, and we’re expected to remember characters and alliances without having them constantly reexplained.
She takes cultural ideas and turns them inside out— gender roles is just one clear example. It’s difficult enough for us to imagine a culture without fixed genders— Ursula LeGuin taught us that a long time ago, with ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’. In that book from 1969, the people on a particular planet were ambisexual, having no fixed sex.
What Ms. Leckie does is different, and arguably more radical. Here, the characters have the same physical gender differentiation we do, as is made clear when we’re introduced to one culture’s Genitalia Festival, with its brightly colored tiny penises hung all over the space station’s walls. However, no one in Radch culture is ever called by a male pronoun— everyone is considered female. In other words, people come in the standard two genders for purposes of procreation, but gender is otherwise completely unimportant to them; not just is everyone referred to as “she”, both parents are considered mothers, their siblings are all aunts, and the child’s siblings are all sisters. The enormous importance we place on gender and gender roles is simply lacking— something that Ms. Leckie doesn’t explain, but simply makes clear by exposition. And that is just one detail, and one not at the heart of the story, which isn’t about sex at all.
Ancillary Sword (named for a class of warship) is too densely written, too involved, for me to do it justice in a brief Amazon interview. Suffice it to say that any awards Ann Leckie has received (which is most of them, as I understand it) she has earned, and read the trilogy. Read it in order, though— an attempt to read this without reading its predecessor first will result only in confusion.