Those who – like me – read and loved Ann Leckie’s Hugo award-winning Ancillary Justice will no doubt want to read Ancillary Sword, the sequel. After all, Breq Mianaai is one of the most complex and beautiful characters to emerge in recent sf. Who can’t love the ship-turned-ancillary seeking revenge for her favorite officer’s death? In the author’s competent hands, Ancillary Justice is the epitome of what an sf book can be – fiercely intelligent, structurally complex, emotionally rewarding.
And then there’s the sequel. Don’t get me wrong – it was a somewhat satisfying read. I had to know what happened next to Breq. And I’ll be looking forward to Ancillary Mercy, scheduled to be released in October, 2015.
But I’d be lying if I said I understood all the 5-star ratings and gushing reviews on Goodreads for Ancillary Sword. It’s not as action-packed and suspenseful as the first book. Perhaps it is unfair to make such a comparison – Ancillary Justice was always going to be a hard act to follow. And perhaps Ancillary Mercy will wrap things up in a much more thrilling and satisfying way. First, a few words on the plot:
Breq Mianaai is appointed Fleet Captain by Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch – or at least, that part of her personality which is less bloodthirsty and expansionist. Breq commands Mercy of Kalr. (And related to that is my question of why this book is called Ancillary Sword, when Breq commands a Mercy ship. What am I missing?)
Breq arrives on her ship at the Athoek Station where she seeks out the ‘sister’ of Awn, the officer who Breq-as-ship killed twenty years ago, on the orders of the other Anaander Mianaai. Stuff happens – the alien Presger translator is killed, and Breq goes into a period of official mourning on the estate of a tea planter who seems to be holding her workers in a state of slavery. Breq survives an attempt on her life, and attempts to improve the living conditions for the workers.
The pace does not pick up until the climax at the end of the book, and even then, the stakes are never as high as they were in the first book. The local villains are petty or one-sided as opposed to interesting. There is also a ‘Genitalia’ festival which I could not understand the point of.
My other issue was with some of the writerly aspects of the book. There is a lot of ‘telling’ of emotions. Lots of sentence fragments referring to the protagonist / her voice as Angry. Calm. Even. There is simply no need for them. It detracts from the story. This is more of an editing issue than anything else.
Last but not least is the description of several characters as ‘dark-skinned’.
Now, I am all for diversity in sf, of all kinds. Heck, I’m dark-skinned. The first time I spotted the phrase, I didn’t even think. Second time, it made me pause. Third time, I frowned. Fourth time, I wanted chuck the book away and say to the author: This is not how to do diverse characters.
Let us see how the Wikipedia God defines dark-skinned:
“Dark skin is a naturally occurring human skin color rich in eumelanin pigments and having a dark colour. People with relatively dark skin are referred to as brown, and those with very dark skin are often referred to as black, although this usage can be ambiguous in some countries where it is also used to specifically refer to different ethnic groups or populations.”
So, what do you mean exactly when you say dark-skinned? You mean not-exactly-white, and that’s about it. You can get away with it once, but not multiple times, especially when no other skin color is used to describe any character! It’s lazy, at best.
So if you must bring up skin color, why not be specific about it? Is your character brown, black, ebony, cinnamon, ochre, olive, copper, chocolate, mahogany, bronze, khaki, onyx, charcoal, jet? Because there’s all kinds of colors in the world, and all kinds of descriptors you can use. Calling characters simply ‘dark-skinned’ is not helping me picture them.
Hope Ancillary Mercy avoids some of these writing issues…I’ll be waiting for it.