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Ancillary Sword (Leckie) [Nov. 3rd, 2014|02:13 pm]
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3+/5: In which Breq becomes a Social Justice Warrior tackling such issues as abusive relationships, labor rights, and underprivileged groups.

...Um. So here's the thing. Obviously I loved this book. What's not to love? Breq goes in and basically stomps all over a bunch of mean nasty people, forcing them to examine their yucky assumptions and treat underprivileged people and groups better. It's super tropey wish fulfillment; it's awesome. Leckie also is aware of the fact that some things can't be changed, some people won't change the way they think, no matter what, and that's well done.

There's also some lovely hurt/comfort with Breq and Mercy of Kalr (I adore Mercy of Kalr, by the way), again on the theme of -- some things can't be fixed, but they can at least be made a little better.

In terms of the overarching characterization and storyline, I just don't know. I'm not totally convinced by SJW!Breq for the same reason I was convinced by AncillaryJustice!Breq; it seems to me that someone who has spent, literally, hundreds of years in the Radchaai mindset would have a harder time completely letting go of Radchaai assumptions, no matter how devastating the incident with Lieutenant Awm was, even though many years have passed since then. (Think, for example, of how even in this book, it is Awm alone who is the focus of all Breq's anguish, not all the deaths visited on the people in Shis'urna, who are if I remember correctly not even mentioned in Sword. That's the kind of tunnel vision I expect from a Radchaai.)

It's also, of course, a little disquieting that Breq sails in as the member of the dominant race who is going to save all the poor benighted savages from themselves. I mean... there's certainly an argument to be made (and Leckie makes it) that the poor benighted savages are too ground down to save themselves, and another argument (which Leckie also makes) about empowering them to save themselves. But it still kind of rubbed me the wrong way.

There's also this kind of important storyline with the Lord of the Radsch which gets sidelined! Breq is going around setting up labor disputes while... the... entire empire is possibly falling to pieces? The alien Presger may or may not swoop in and kill them all? Tiswarwat is set up as this great honking McGuffin that goes nowhere (so far)! This does not bode well for everything getting tied up neatly given that as far as I know there is only one more book to go. I mean, I still believe she can do it, but more movement in that direction would have been nice.

So, I mean, I liked it! And you will probably really like it too! Because tropey goodness and the triumph of social justice (except when it is satisfyingly grim because it would be unrealistic for SJ to win it all) are very satisfying! But I feel like it doesn't attain the deeper level of thoughtfulness and engaging with tough questions that I wanted it to (for example, I thought Le Guin thought much more interestingly about the anarchy she depicts in The Dispossessed -- which is also rather lower on the satisfying smackdowns for the same reason), and it cleanly misses the jump from entertaining to classic that Justice was struggling with and that I hoped this book would help with. But it's definitely very enjoyable.
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2014-11-03 10:25 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the whole review but I am a little sad that Leckie didn't continue the upward trajectory to more serious and interesting. I'll come back after I've read it, though!
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2014-11-06 02:20 pm (UTC)
It's still awfully enjoyable. I'll be curious to see what you think, because by and large I think most people have actually enjoyed Sword as much as if not more than Justice... I'm an outlier, I think :)
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2014-11-15 04:36 am (UTC)
Okay, I just finished it! And I completely agree with you in that I didn't completely understand where Breq's justice-motivation was coming from. It didn't seem like a necessarily logical continuation of her obsession with Awn from the first book or, necessarily, her experience as a Ship and an ancillary, but it seemed like Leckie wanted me to think that it was...?

I also thought that the colonialism politics were a little bit unsubtle. Not in the "well, there are two sides, you know" kind of way -- because one thing that Leckie continues to be good at is showing that there are usually more than two sides (I think there were 4 or 5 different groups in interlocking colonial relationships in play), but, I guess, in the way that Tisarwat and Breq are basically able to use their power to fix things. As you say, it's a nice piece of wish fulfillment, and maybe radical in its own way. One of the themes of Ancillary Justice was that there's a breaking point, and a moment of moral choice, and that that choice matters even if you aren't significant or a wielder of power. Here, I guess there's the corollary, that deciding to act does produce significant change, especially if you do have power and money and influence (i.e. there's no excuse for not trying to bend things toward justice on the grounds that "it's too hard" or "the situation is too complex".) But I found it unsatisfying. I was expecting Breq to have more of a struggle to care about people and justice on a large scale; I also think it would have helped if Queter (or any Valskaayan) had shown up as a character before the last minute.

In general, I think it was too blunt with the message (I guess this was also true of Ancillary Justice, but there morality was mostly couched in slightly more abstract, sententious terms that seemed to be bringing out a particularly Raadchai way of seeing the world.

For me, the problem was made clear by this bit of Queter's speech to Breq: "All of you! You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal and you call it bringing civilization" (p. 270).

Which is clearly an adaptation of that famous bit of Calgacus' speech in Tacitus: "Theft, murder, rape go by the false name of "empire", and where they make a desert they call it peace." (Agricola 30.5). But Leckie's is just a little bit too much more baldly stated, I think. Because what makes Tacitus' formulation so powerful is that it doesn't actually twist its definitions of "empire" and "peace" too far from what a Roman would understand them to be: "imperium" *is*, basically, the absolute unappealable power of a magistrate (and the words that Calgacus uses have weird resonances in Roman law re: magistrates exercising their power of summary execution). In some sense, Calgacus is pointing out consequences of empire that are encoded in very idea of empire.

Queter, however, is pointing out a contradiction between a fair-seeming pretext ("Bringing civilization") and an unjust reality. Which is all very well, but I think that modeling it on Tacitus actually hurts the impact. Because the problem isn't that "bringing civilization" means in reality terrible abuses of power, but that "bringing civilization" is by its nature a terrible abuse of power (also Tacitean, as it happens). Or at least, having Queter make that argument, and Breq (or someone else, as Skaiaat and, to a certain extent, Awn, did in Ancillary Justice) make a counterargument would have pushed the ideas a lot further.

My favorite parts were those with Mercy of Kalr and her crew and officers. I rather liked Five Kalr, and I really liked the dynamics of ancillaries and ideas of what it means to be/have/use ancillaries, and the way that this aspect of the Raadchai military tradition effects people who have probably never met or worked with an ancillary soldier. I wish there had been more of Seivarden, though.
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2014-11-17 02:15 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes, yes! I will probably just be nodding emphatically and somewhat incoherently to all your points :)

Yeah, Breq's justice-motivation came out of nowhere, for me, and wasn't adequately signposted. I *think* that we were supposed to think of it as something that developed during all those years of recovering from Justice of Toren's destruction, but if so, why didn't we see any of this in Ancillary Justice?

I'm glad we didn't see it there, for that matter, because I agree that it was rather coarsely done, as you say, in a "let's sail in and fix All the Things!" kind of way.

Yeah, AJ worked for me because it was so clearly told from a Raadchai point of view, so any moralizing was done from that standpoint, and so it doubled as an alien-viewpoint kind of thing, which I eat up with a spoon :)

I love what you say about Tacitus! Being a barbarian myself, I had no idea this was an influence, but it seems very likely. Except Tacitus (as you have read it to me) is much more interesting -- it's very interesting to me to think of civilization itself as an abuse of power. (I do think this was brought out a little more in AJ.) Whereas this was more of a "let's fix all injustices!" smackdown.

I also wanted more Seivarden!
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