Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

For a book I anticipated so much that I pre-ordered it, I took a very long time to finish reading it.  Now, at least half of that is just me and how my brain works, but half of it was certainly with the book.

This book is work to read.  It isn't bad work, or very difficult work, but it is thinky-thing work.  There are still the obstacles from the first book -- the handling of gendered language, for one thing, and the nonspecificity of characters' physical attributes. The main character, Breq, where our point of view lies, doesn't notice these things because they are not necessarily important, either personally or culturally.  For me, this is both fascinating and disconnecting.  So, I have to work around that.  It is good work to do.

There is also the "mystery" of the book, the questions it poses and then attempts to answer.  In the first book, Ancillary Justice, the reader shared ignorance with the main character -- we didn't know what Breq didn't know, and we discovered along with Breq.  This time, however, Breq knows more, but we aren't in on it.  Sometimes that got a bit oppressive for me, and I was frequently trying to catch up.  That was work I didn't enjoy so much, because I felt distracted from what I enjoyed in the first book -- how the world was constructed and how Breq dealt with it.  The conflicts in this book felt a little pulled from the air, although I strongly suspect they connect more to what will happen in the next book.  This book leans in two directions and didn't quite stand up on its own, which, again, I think is not unusual in the middle book of three.

Perhaps that is what made this slower reading -- this is the middle book of three that will tell a complete and complex story, and on this book's shoulders are all the duties of connecting the big events that started things with the big events that will end things.  That's hard work for an author.  I don't think Leckie failed on this -- I see paths, I see connection lines -- but that the particular style that worked to bring Breq to a distinct goal in the first book don't work as well here, but she has to use it because doing otherwise would tear everything apart.  Instead of letting me in on the story, it held me a bit at a distance so as not to "spoil" things.  Leckie also doesn't use the typical "clues" of series books:  very little dropping the events of the past in as references, or standing at some future point looking back to foreshadow other things.  I'm a series reader, so I'm familiar with those tropes. They aren't here, or are subtle, and while I think that is a positive for the trilogy, it creates some problems and I noticed the bumps, which I think slowed my reading.

I did enjoy some of the games Leckie is playing with gender this time, though.  Again, the language creates in the mind of this Western reader the vague idea that the world is peopled only with females, although this isn't actually true (the Penis festival underlined this idea nicely).  One secondary character is depicted as a sexual predator and abuser.  We do not know this character's gender at all, but we know that at least one victim was male or at least distinguished as being a "brother" to another character.  This subtle bit of plot casts shade on the idea that only men are predators and abusers who seek power over others (a typical male role) while not doing a "See?  Women can, too!" thing.  It just batted at the stereotypes, knocked them around, and made me think about them differently.  That's a successful action for a book to create.  Leckie is very good at poking at the stereotypes typical in science fiction without making an issue of her poking.

Of course, I have the next book, Ancillary Mercy, on pre-order.  I also intend to hunt down some of her short fiction (perhaps she has a collection?)  Leckie is well worth reading, even if her writing makes me work.  Maybe because her writing makes me work.

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