In the wake of the Sad Puppies controversy at the Hugo Awards, Feminist Fiction will be looking at and reviewing every possible nomination -- looking at merit without regards to politics. For more of my thoughts on the Sad Puppies, read here.
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie -- nominated for Best Novel
Ancillary Sword is an excellently crafted and compelling novel. It's less complex than its award-winning predecessor Ancillary Justice, but it's also far more accessible, making it arguably a better read over all.
Ancillary Sword has the same conceptual set-up as the first in the series. Our protagonist, Breq, was once the AI of a ship, built by a society without gender, that controlled hundreds of once-human ancillaries and became trapped in one of the ancillary bodies when the rest of the ship was destroyed. Breq dedicated herself to destroying the ruler of the universe in revenge for both her own death and the order that forced her to kill her beloved captain.
As far as unusual protagonists go, she's pretty high up on the list.
But this is the backstory rather than the focus of Ancillary Sword. After the events of Ancillary Justice, Breq has command of a ship and has become responsible for protecting a distant planetary system from whatever the threat of growing civil war. It's a much simpler plot than Book One, a serviceable middle-book story that is self-contained but not mind-blowing. But Ancillary Sword shines not in its plot but in its writing and characterization -- simultaneously enjoyable and compelling, complex but accessible. Leckie has mastered the art of using her complex world building to inform, rather than define, the story, and the result is progressive sci-fi that's a joy to read.
The gender concept takes a back seat here, present but not all-encompassing, which seems fitting when the reader has had a whole book to adjust to it. The book's philosophical questions are more focussed on issues of colonialism and the concept of "civilization," challenging assumptions and exploring dark repercussions without detracting from a story well-told. It also hints at a lot of questions of identity, setting up, I think, for the last book's final showdown with a villain whose is the embodiment of an identity crisis. Behind all of its complex world-building, Leckie's debut series asks a simple question -- what defines who we are? The question lies at the heart of Breq's story, encompassing its plot threads about free will and circumstance, hive minds, ancillaries who were once human and are now ships, humans who must pretend to be ships, and a villain who can't accept her past actions and is literally split over how she chooses to respond to it.
Overall, Ancillary Sword is an excellent read. I don't know if it stands a chance of winning the Hugo, since Leckie won last year, but it's a worthwhile candidate, and it'll take an excellent book to knock it off the top of my list.