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Concepts and Missteps

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Ancillary Sword/Ancillary Mercy

Jakob hat Ann Leckies Ancillary Sword und Ancillary Mercy gelesen


Zusammenfassung auf Deutsch:

Ann Leckies Roman Ancillary Justice (dt. Die Maschinen) hat 2014 zu Recht alle großen SF-Preise abgeräumt; zu Recht, denn das Buch bietet eine nahezu perfekte Mischung aus Weltraumabenteuer, kühnen Ideen, stilistischen Neuerungen, ebenso origenellen wie glaubwürdigen Figuren. Mit dem Radch-Imperium hat Leckie dafür einen Schauplatz geschaffen, der einerseits das Gefühl klassischer Space Operas vermittelt, andererseits voll kleiner Sonderbarkeiten steckt, wie zum Beispiel der Besessenheit seiner Bewohner vom Teetrinken oder ihrem Tabu, nackte Hände zu zeigen.

Die beiden Fortsetzungen, Ancillary Sword und Ancillary Mercy, können das hohe Niveau leider nicht halten. Obwohl beide keine schlechten Romane sind und das Radch-Universum um einige interessante Aspekte bereichern, verliert sich die Handlung im Kleinteiligen, Konflikte verlaufen im Sande, und das anfangs so überwältigende Radch fühlt sich mit einem Mal eng an.


Full Review in English:

One year ago, Ann Leckie's amazing space opera novel Ancillary Justice won all the major awards for SF literature. Rightfully so, because it featured a nearly perfect blend of space adventure, daring concepts, stylistic innovation, original yet relatable characters and a sweeping setting – the Radch – that felt at the same time very much like a traditional space empire while also offering strange little details at every corner, like the obsession of its inhabitants with drinking tea, their taboo against showing naked hands or their disregard of the concept of gender. The one thing that slightly marred the beauty of this book was the ending, which kind of held back to pave the way for sequels. But hey, that menat that I would get at least two more books in this wonderful settings, with these characters that I had so quickly become accustomed to.

A year later, the sequel Ancillary Sword came out. I liked it, but wasn't really enthusiastic about it. Part of that was certainly that some of the novelty of the Radch universe had worn off. But the book also felt decidedly like a problematic middle novel: While introducing a bunch of new characters with interesting quirks, it did little with most of them, and at the same time lost sight of the central relationship of the first book, between protagonist Breq and her haughty charge Seivarden. The novel also felt much smaller than Ancillary Justice, being set on just one space station and one planet – and while the space station (who is also an AI, of course) is an interesting character in its own right, it remains strangely undefined as a setting, which is even more true of the planet below it.

The motivation of the protagonist Breq seemed muddled to me in Sword. In Justice, Breq, the last fragment of a once mighty warship and outwardly human, was driven by the need to take revenge on on tyrant Anaander Mianaai, who had forced her to kill one of her lieutenants, her beloved Awn. In Sword, this pretty straightforward need for revenge is replaced by Breq's need to make amends for what she was forced to do to Awn's sister Basnaaid. An interesting turn, but the book doesn't quite make it work. Part of the problem is that, in things personal, Breq turns more and more into a moral authority figure, making little to no mistakes in her personal conduct and being perfectly thoughtful and self-reflexice. This makes Basnaaid look petty for not forgiving Breq, and it makes Breq look kind of smug for accepting her refusal so readily.

Still, Ancillary Sword was a good read, and I decided to postpone my final judgement about the series until having read its third and final novel, Ancillary Mercy.

To make it short: While Mercy finds some focus and momentum again, I still felt that it continues too much in the vein of Sword. We're still stuck in the same tiny part of the setting as in the previous novel; and while Breq finally reveals her revolutionary political agenda – which rings perfectly true to her character and to the setting, getting my hopes up again – the novel seems unwilling to really engage with it. Mercy reamins in the waiting-and-talking mode for a long time, until the tyrant Anaander Mianaai (or at least one of his personality aspects) shows up and acts, for all intents and purposes, pretty much like a cackling evil-doer who is our hero's moral inferior in every way. This was a most unwelcome surprise – the Anaander in Justice was a quite interesting villain, who could lay serious claim on being the good guy from her own point of view; the Anaander in Mercy does so, too, but it's never really a question if she cares about anything but her own personal power – she obviously doesn't.

Plot-wise, we get a conceptually quite interesting and well-realized space-action sequence in the middle, which actually is not an action sequence, but still manages to build suspense. What follows is a failed plan and the expected un-expected turnaround at the end, both without any sense of true danger to our protagonists and their moral standpoints.

Don' t get me wrong: There's great stuff in Sword and Mercy, and not all of it holdovers from Justice. For example, Ann Leckie manages to paint a highly vivid, believable and often funny portrait of a military that is, in practice, largely run by AI ships who tend to be emotionally highly competent, acting as part therapist, part lover and part mediator for their crews – while at the same time being little more than slaves with not even the status of personhood. It's care economy driven to the extreme. Following from the fact that thinking and feeling AIs monitor practically everything, the society of the Radch is one where the rules of intimacy are very different from the ones we know, while still feeling like something that would actually work.

But there are also a lot of missteps in Sword and Mercy that weren't there in Justice, the greatest being the lack of consequences to events that should be highly dramatic. For example, early in Sword, an alien ambassador gets shot, and we're kind of being promised that bad things will certainly happen in response to that … at the beginning of Mercy, a ship of said aliens finally arrives – only to bring a replacement ambassador who, as a character, fulfills the exact same function as her predecessor, her quirky behaviour making her a kind of annoying running gag. While these events kind of make sense within the context of the novel's universe, from a story standpoint, it is not such a good idea to use a potentially dramatic event to effectively cancel out the development that has lead to it.

Then, there are parts of the story that are forgotten and picked up again in a slightly too convenient manner. For example, Breq trying to find forgiveness from citizen Basnaaid is a central element of Sword; at the end of the book, she didn't quite succeed, leaving things with Basnaaid in a kind of limbo. Throughout Mercy, Basnaaid is more or less absent, but in the end, it is hinted that Breq has probably won her over through her heroics. This just seems to convenient, especially in a series of novels that gives a lot of space over to exploring the nuances of its characters relationships. In much the same way, the resolution of the conflict between Breq and Anaander feels unearned; again, any sense of urgency is missing.

This review might sound bitter; it actually isn't meant this way, because my disappointment with Sword and Mercy really took nothing away from my enthusiasm about Justice. To me, it feels like the first book remains a thing apart from its two sequels. As I said, Sword and Mercy are both absolutely worth reading – both explore interesting concepts and characters and are solid sf; they are just not particularly great. I'm looking forward to Ann Leckie's next book, which will not be a part of this series; I think that a lot of the weaknesses of Sword and Mercy are due to the books being sequels.


Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword und Ancillary Mercy, Orbit, in englischer Sprache, je Euro 15,99

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