The end of book one left Breq, former ship AI turned human soldier, in command of her own ship and departing the capital of the empire and its nascent civil war en route to the recently annexed tea-growing planet of Athoek. On the space station orbiting Athoek, Breq uncovers widespread corruption. People are living in a subterranean undergarden and technically ‘don’t exist’. There’s imperial forces acting highly suspicious. Tea magnates jockeying for position. Something called the ‘Ghost gate’, a doorway to a supposedly haunted solar system. It’s a smaller, tighter story. It hits its action beats. There’s a panoramic set piece set up early in the story and you just know the final showdown is going to play out there.
Leckie has grown as a writer in a short period of time. The prose is functional and rarely awkward, over descriptive, or murky. While married to Breq’s first person viewpoint, there is an in-narrative cheat that allows other perspectives: Breq, along with her entire crew, is hooked up to her ship. So she can monitor the thoughts and activities of several of the other main characters. It sounds kind of silly but it works. Especially when weaved together; Breq might be trying to listen to an important conversation while three other characters are amid actions that are of immense interest to both Breq and the reader.
Flaws from book one remain, but slightly improved. The heavy handedness of the modern day class politics… has, uh, less heavy hands. It’s still there in spades: the underclass living in the worst and most dangerous area of the station. The immigrant workers forced into the tea fields with no real recourse to get out, regardless of state sponsored non-solutions that allow everyone else to maintain their conscience. It ties into the story a little smoother this time around. Indeed, it only really took me out of the novel when it wrapped up so easily and with such obvious solutions on Breq’s part. It feels kind of cheap to showcase real world problems and then answer them with such easy fixes that would not work (or last) in real world situations.
The secondary characters are still not very good. It’s hard to fathom how a book succeeding on the strength of a first person viewpoint can somehow fail at everyone else. There’s a new character who is seventeen years old and she’s written like how a fourtysomething+ person thinks teenagers are rather than how teenagers actually think of themselves. The villain, insofar, as there is one is pretty lame. There’s a few characters, such as the governor or the station administrator or chief botanist, that are so bland, I must wonder why they are even separate characters
The narrative continues to use a single pronoun for all genders (she), and I continue to wonder if the absence of gender in Radch society means everyone is bisexual or if everyone is genetically altered, and Leckie continues to tiptoe around these questions. I went from trying to guess at everyone’s “real gender”, to seeing everyone as vaguely faceless, to seeing everyone as actually women, to sort of settling on everyone looking androgynous (I think this is the closest to Leckie’s vision, but I am not positive). I think the gender thing is also totally overblown when people talk about these books. It’s not really new or inventive. What is far subtler and more effective is the real strength of the book: Breq herself. She is cool, distant, competent, compassionate but no-nonsense, effective, deadly. She runs her own ship. It’s a kind of female POV we don’t get much of. Even though Breq isn’t technically a woman.
This one felt more episodic than the last. It wrapped up only a very narrow plotline — most of the action taking place in Ancillary Sword is a result of whatever is behind the Ghost Gate, a device introduced in this book and a resolution that was never reached. At the pace of one book a year, it’s not too bad. I look forward to the next episode.