It was probably inevitable that the second book in the Imperial Radch series would not live up to expectations after Ancillary Justice won all the awards (look it up). What I did not expect is just how weak a book it would be.
Ancillary Justice at its essence had three things going for it: the Radch view on gender and the use of only feminine pronouns, a simple but effective rhetorical trick; the diffuse AI ship Breq and the legion dictator Anaander Mianai; and an otherwise very solid all-around space opera story and world. I was worried the pronoun thing would begin to grate. It did not, in part because Leckie wisely chose to shift focus away from it (apart from a bizarre festival that proves not distracting by being so forgettable). But it also doesn’t add anything here in the way it did in the first volume. As to the second (and much less appreciated) great strength of Ancillary Justice, there are no flashbacks to Breq when she was a ship and Anaander Mianai is almost entirely absent. Ordered to a new station, Breq doesn’t even interact with the Station AI! But Ancillary Sword’s real failure is that it isn’t a very interesting story.
Ancillary Justice ended with the two factions of Anaander Mianai now at open war with each other. Breq has been dragooned into the service of one. To that end, she is sent to an obscure, out-of-the-way system that is hinted to be more important than it looks (SPOILER NOT SPOILER: we finish the book without ever finding out). Breq, now raised to the exalted rank of fleet captain, spends the rest of the book ordering people about on the station and “downwell.”
Second acts in a series are difficult by nature. The author has typically blown a large portion of her expository load, you can’t have full resolution (and usually get even less than in book one), and the primary burden is to get from Point A of a great idea for a series to Point B of a desired climax. I’m not sure if Ancillary Sword fails for that because so very little happens and what does happen appears to have so very little to do with the universe-spanning empire stakes. There are a couple hints that may become the key to the whole thing, but we only get very bare hints. Perhaps this is one of those books that, rather than building on the first book, runs almost in parallel instead, with both books together building toward book 3 (Larry Correia’s Grimnoire trilogy does this to a certain extent, and Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy goes all in).
The main story is already burdened by its perceived irrelevance. The problem is exacerbated by a story that isn’t really interested on any level. It is almost structured as a mystery, but the components to the climax and resolution are either obvious or unknowable. The basic structure is Breq swoops in, sees obvious problems, dictates obvious solution, with an obvious reaction. There are a couple of good twists, but we don’t get a payoff for either. The climax would have served as a good faux climax, with a bigger and better one behind it, but is unsatisfying by itself.
On another level the story is no better. The Radch empire already had a bit of a British empire thing going on, and the planet in question is a tremendous producer of tea. The station has an ethnic underclass living off the books and downwell there is an oppressed worker class on the tea plantations. The local elite of course are utterly unable to see the problem. Breq, who knows just a little bit about everything, jumps in and starts fixing everything. The obvious problem there seems to have occurred to Leckie, hence regular rounds of oppressed folks reminding Breq she doesn’t know much of anything about them. But given the role of Mary Sue Breq has been given to play, they just come off as childish, kicking their heels at being made to take their medicine.
It’s unfortunate. I’ve long been an avid reader of fantasy and every other kind of speculative fiction, but Ancillary Justice was one of the books that finally sparked an interest in science fiction for me. I hold out hope that Ancillary Mercy will capitalize on considerable potential.