Note: There will necessarily be spoilers for Book One in this series, but none for this book.
This is Book Two of a series which began with Ancillary Justice, a book that won just about every big award for science fiction and fantasy in 2013, including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the BSFA Award (presented by the British Science Fiction Association), the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Locus Award. There is a lot of love for this series.
In this universe far into the future, there are a number of beings who are massive entities with hive-minds that reside in multiple bodies at once. This is true of the Lord of the Radch Empire, a being who goes by the name of Anaander Mianaai. It was also once true of Breq, who used to be an “ancillary” or segment of the Justice of Toren, a massive starship. The Justice of Toren was destroyed by Anaander Mianaai, with only Breq escaping. Because Breq occupies just one body now, Breq can pass for human.
[I should note, as I did in the review of Book One, that in this future galaxy, gender is maybe a matter of choice, or maybe of convenience; it’s unclear. We don’t know what gender anyone is, but everyone is universally designated as “she” except in the case of children, who are noted to be “sisters” or “brothers.”]
In Book One, we learned that the Lord of the Radch is at war with “herself” over the destruction of an entire solar system some thousand years previously. The Lord has now divided into two factions, one good and one evil. It is of course pretty difficult to figure out which is which, and to support either one is treason, as far as the other is concerned. This puts citizens of the Radch in a very difficult position. Occasionally it is possible to infer which is which from the relative justice of the act being ordered by the Lord. When Breq was still part of the Justice of Toren, Anaander Mianaai ordered Breq to shoot her beloved superior, Lieutenant Awn, in the head. Awn had discovered the split in Anaander Mianaai, and refused to obey the orders of the faction she concluded was evil. Breq had no choice; Awn would die in any event, and she thought she would die as well. Indeed, the Lord destroyed the Justice of Toren; it was an accident that Breq escaped. Breq loved Awn, and never recovered from what she had to do.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq has been sent by the Lord of the Radch to Athoek Station as Captain of the starship Mercy of Kalr. This assignment dovetails with Breq’s own needs, because she wants to find the sister of the late Lieutenant Awn, and offer her support. But the sister, Basnaaid, will have nothing to do with Breq. While at the station, however, there is plenty to keep Breq busy: she gets involved with the station’s management and with the vicious undercurrent of race and class conflict that officially doesn’t exist.
Breq, no doubt because of her own past as a former ancillary, is outraged at the way the underclass is treated by those who think they are better; it is slavery de facto if not de jure. In particular, workers from other planetary systems are used as the elite wishes to use them, including being denied sufficient food and education, and being taken advantage of for sexual and labor exploitation. Once again, the notion of “justice” becomes a critical point for Breq. The political philosophy of the Radch is summed up by the slogan: “Justice, propriety, and benefit.”
No just act could be improper, no proper act unjust. Justice and propriety, so intertwined, themselves led to benefit. The question of just who or what benefited was a topic for late-night discussions over half empty bottles of arrack, but ordinarily no Radchaai questioned that justice and propriety would ultimately be beneficial in some gods-approved way.”
But that has always been the problem of course, over all of time, and over the expanse of the known universe. Who gets to decide what is just? And now that the Lord of the Radch can’t even agree, the question is more salient than ever.
Discussion: I appreciated the first book for its distinctive innovativeness, but I struggled with all of the “alien concepts.” In this book, the “heavy lifting” of the world building has already been done, and the author can just get on with the story; it is much, much easier to read.
Also, in the first book, Seivarden – a sad case who was rescued and rehabilitated by Breq, here comes into her own as Breq’s most trusted lieutenants. She is not featured as much in the story, but when she is, her character evolution is clear, as is the fact that she thinks of Breq much as Breq once thought of Lieutenant Awn. It’s a nice symmetry.
Two digressionary notes:
1. There is a very funny moment in this book when Breq reflects on the “oddness” of the name of a visitor from another place. The person’s name is “Dlique.” Everyone stumbles over this name, which is a riot considering their names are, for example, Anaander, Raughd, Daos, Skaaiat, and so on.
2. In thinking about the hive-mind/multi-bodied nature of the ruler, it strikes me as a brilliant way to solve the problem of administering a vast empire; i.e., if one is able actually to be everywhere at once! This was always a problem in the past, with the Persians, Ottomans, Holy Roman Empire, etc. In our current political systems, we are quick to blame our leaders for not being omniscient, but it really isn’t possible. On Radch, however, the problem is solved!
Evaluation: This is a middle book – definitely not a standalone, but I found that, unlike many middle books, it is a better read than the first book. This is, however, only because I didn’t have to struggle with all the “out-of-the-box” concepts in this one. I know that readers either love these books beyond all reason, or find them “alienating.” I am closer to the former camp than the latter.
Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2014
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