I liked the first book of the Imperial Radch trilogy, and I think this book might even be a bit better. Still, it’s different enough to be surprised anew – not something a lot of series writers manage to pull off. Leckie really shows she’s an original, crafty writer…
The main quality of Ancillary Sword probably is its subtle, subdued nature. Leckie manages to channel the formal, militaristic nature of the Radchaai society in the way she tells the story. Content and form are superbly aligned. Both the restrained prose and Leckie’s supreme command of narrative voice are something to behold. There never is any exposition that would be out of character, and because of that, our discovery of the world Leckie happens very, very slowly. This is a strength rather than a weakness, though.
Because of this, the moments we do learn stuff (about the Presger aliens, about mourning rituals, about certain habits of ancillaries) have a big impact, and remind us readers we don’t have a grasp of this world, although we thought we did. Leckie shatters our self-deception a few times, and we should be grateful for that. Add to that the fact that these moments are always small and oddly poetic. It’s like traveling through a barren wasteland, to discover a shoot of an orchid once in a while, of a bright bed of mushrooms. It shows the author’s tremendous restraint. It’s a talent, because books about the same subject matter could easily be Grand and overdone.
The same goes for the emotional impact Ann Leckie manages to create. Because there’s not a lot of character development, and the characters often feel wooden, at first glance the novel seems detached and cold. Yet in the end it turns out that it is very much about different kinds of love, and I was truly moved. It’s only natural that some of the characters feel flat and wooden, as they are essentially forms of AI. There’s nothing of the good-humoured, pleasant and even funny AIs and robots that populate so much of space opera. And again, emotions are painted sparsely, and again that enhances their impact. A line here, a line there, but so well chosen and precise. Masterly.
Leckie also understands humans (and as such bodies) very well. She makes a few interesting biological observations about the bodily needs of ancillaries that make these robotic characters truly flesh-y and vulnerable. When this happens, it again comes as a gemlike surprise, even as a shock. It shows courage, and feels like a breath of fresh air in the space opera genre.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the narrative voice in this book differs a bit from the previous one, but it is still highly original. If Leckie manages to continue this trend of narrative change in the third & final book, it’ll really be a tour de force.
Even more than Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword is a deadpan comedy of manners.
Mind you, Sword is not an easy read. It needs focus & concentration, and the middle part is slow indeed. Don’t let that scare you off. This is brave, original, moving literature. I’m very curious about the final volume: luckily it’s just out, so I don’t need to wait an entire year…