I loved loved loved Ancillary Justice when it was the new hot thing in SF. I've put off reading the sequel because I often find a whole trilogy is more than I want to swallow at once, I generally do prefer to leave space between books in the same series. So I was excited for Ancillary Sword and I wasn't disappointed.
I just loved the experience of reading it, I was completely immersed and cared about all the characters and didn't want to put the book down. That used to be how I felt about almost all books except really terrible ones, but now I only get that experience with particularly good books. And I still absolutely adore Breq as a viewpoint character, the ways she's not quite human nor perfectly moral, and she has a certain amount of effective superpowers but also some real limitations. That said, I think AS is a bit middle book ish, and isn't as outstandingly wonderful as AJ was.
Part of the problem is the stakes; AJ was masterful in the way it moved between interpersonal concerns and galactic scale politics, but AS is basically all about Breq's mission to one particular planet and really only the small number of people she interacts with directly there. There is a larger picture, but it's very much in the background and I assume will be explored in the third book. (Please don't spoil me for Ancillary Mercy!) And secondly because there's no clear plot twist or reveal. Precisely because it's a sequel, it can't exactly make the surprises from the first book still surprising. In fact the first person narrative directly tells the reader, even repeats several times, the key fact about Breq's history and identity which only gradually becomes apparent in AJ. And the whole surprising story with Anaander Mianaai which formed the climax of AJ is again repeatedly just described to the reader, and set up as something that's going to be important for the plot of the concluding volume. The real weakness in AS is that there's no new mystery about the background and worldbuilding of equivalent power.
This may be primarily a consequence of this, but the need to make clear to / remind the reader what happened in the first book makes the tone seem rather didactic. Like, in AJ Breq almost appears to be talking to a reader of her own timeline and context, and the reader has to infer how her world is different from ours, but here, Breq is almost directly addressing a twenty-first century Earth reader. That slightly broke my suspension of disbelief, because to whom is Breq supposed to be explaining the really standard customs of the Radch and the basic, used by everybody, technology? And she is still an unreliable narrator who does hide some of her plans until the appropriate moment of the plot, but it's nothing like as gloriously disorienting as in AJ.
I mean, it's quite nice that Breq and crew manage to expose a domestic abuser and a corrupt official, and help to improve conditions for some of the oppressed groups on Athoek. But it all felt a bit wish-fulfillment-like. Very much a classic example of Bujold's fantasy of political agency. And there is some consciousness of this, you get characters who comment that it's all very well for a high-ranking Radchaai official to swan in and meddle a bit but it's not exactly solving the fundamental problems with the Radch as a militaristic, expansionist colonizing power. Also the high tension scene towards the end seemed to be over too quickly; I never really had time to believe that anyone was actually doomed before the miraculous rescue.
Currently reading: In a time of gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, sort of, though really I haven't picked up anything new since I finished AS yesterday.
Up next: I so much want to spend time in Breq's viewpoint that I am tempted to break my usual rule and go straight on to Ancillary Mercy. (Side-note: I don't understand why books two and three are named this way round, since most of the plot of Ancillary Sword takes place on a Mercy. But hey.)
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