Friday, June 5, 2015

Ancillary Sword, more Hugo's and some things I have learned about my taste in reading

Warning, I am starting off with a wall of text musing about the reading I have been doing lately for the Hugo's and how it plays into larger themes that either work or don't work for me. If you just want to see the book quotes - skip down to the image of the Ancillary Sword book cover. 

Yesterday, after reading a news piece about  Plutos Moons being in Chaos I started thinking about The Three Body problem again and realized that one things which made it such an increasingly unpleasant reading experience was how pretty much all of the female characters ended up being portrayed. I greatly enjoyed the first part of the book (about the first third I think) with the pieces about the cultural revolution and the establishment of the various POV characters, but as the plot progressed (along with the increasingly silly science and illogical activities) it became more and more apparent that if a morally reprehensible action or action born in weakness of character was about to take place, a female character was going to do it. It is good that at least there were female characters, in non-traditional roles even, but almost universally they were portrayed as selfish and lacking a moral core.   

There was a greater diversity of behavior and character in the male cast of the book and apparently reprehensible actions by certain male characters were treated as heroic, so there was a distinct difference in framing. Yes, I know, almost no one actually seems to be "good" person - another reason the book got so wearing to read. But seriously, it felt increasingly like I was being slapped in the face with this and since I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Heinlein and lots of "Golden Age" fiction featuring covers with women in improbably tight space suits, it takes some pretty overt text for me to pick up on it.

The other thing I realized, was that it is important for me that the peripheral characters, and the wider world in general, actually matter in the story (more than just the stereotypical "we must save the world" trope"). I will try to explain with an example - a while back I was reading an on-line discussion where the topic of books came up and several recommendations were made - one book in particular got several enthusiastic endorsements so I downloaded the preview from Amazon, though it was pretty interesting, and bought the whole thing. I read it in less than a day (I was home sick) and found the world-building to be compelling and the stratification of the society well presented. I really wanted to see where this was all going (it was the first book of a trilogy) - but instead of doing anything with the world and the axillary characters, for the conclusion of the book, the author actually destroyed everything - literally blew it all up. Only our two protagonists survived. And the book framed this as a happy ending - the "bad guys" got what they deserved and the way it was presented in the text it didn't matter that this took out entire rest of the population. I was appalled.

Protagonist centered morality writ large.

I realized that this is one of the things that has been a major turn-off for me in lots of the popular books I have read in the past few years. This concept that as long as our POV character is okay, nothing else matters.

Well, actually, I have discovered that it matters to me. I don't find anything particularly compelling or heroic in characters that survive or thrive by stepping over the bodies of the remainder of the cast. I am also much more interested in a book that describes a character's actions than I am in a book that just tells me over and over that a character is a "hero."  

This is one (of several) reasons why virtually all of the short fiction just fell totally flat for me. Many of the protagonists/POV characters were unappealing or simply awful people (like in “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” and Flow) and/or were only out for themselves - giving no cares for the wider world. Simply yuck.

All of this is an extremely round-about way of getting to one of the reasons that I liked The Goblin Emperor and both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword so much. In each of these worlds, other people mattered to the protagonists. It wasn't enough for them simply to satisfy their own needs/desires. Maia and Breq both care about other characters, sometimes even when they don't necessarily want to. They care not just about their love interest or in book "family" - they care, in the abstract, about people in general. About society as a wider concept. This I like. I like it a great deal and want to see more of it.

For today's Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader, here is the beginning of Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie - the second book in the Imperial Radch series and current Hugo nominee for Best Novel ...

 "Considering the circumstances, you could use another lieutenant." Anaander Mianaai, ruler (for the moment) of all the vast reaches of Radchaai space, sat in a wide chair cushioned with embroidered silk. This body that spoke to me – one of thousands – looked to be about thirteen years old. Black clad, dark-skinned. Her face was already stamped with the aristocratic features that were, in Radchaai space, a marker of the highest rank and fashion. Under normal circumstances no one ever saw such young versions of the Lord of Radch, but these were not normal circumstances.

From page 56 of Ancillary Sword for The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice ...

In my quarters, Kalr Five, disquieted by the day's events but of course expressionless, had my supper waiting for me – a bowl of skel and flask of water, common soldier's mess. I suspected Ship had suggested it to her but didn't query to confirm that suspicion. I'd have been content eating skel all the time, but it would have distressed Five, and not only because it would have deprived her of the opportunity to filch tastes of non-skel delicacies, a cherished perquisite of serving the captain or the officers in the decade room.     

I have seen several complaints on-line that Sword suffers from second book slump but I have to say I disagree completely. I am really enjoyed the book thus far and find it neatly fills in details of world building, giving the reader a broader perspective on how truly terrible Radchaai civilization was and is. The reader gets to explore the here and now, before things go to heck in a hand-basket. It is significantly different than the first book in that the story is basically linear, so if it was the time tripping perspective of the first book that you liked best - where the story unfolds in a non-linear perspective and the chapters move backwards and forwards in time - well I admit, that is lacking. Also, if you expecting to plunge directly into a civil war, with huge multi-ship battles, well, that isn't what the book starts with either. So I can see how, depending on what your expectations were, the book can feel disappointing. 

Me - I am happy and loving it so far. Also - the plot moves along briskly enough that I haven't worried much about logical issues in the stories (like the whole why ancillaries in the first place question). I am enjoying the ride. 

So - for my Hugo's ballot I have a conundrum. Do I like Ancillary Sword best or The Goblin Emperor? This is gonna be a hard one.


  1. I'm curious what your answer will be!

    My 56 -

  2. Not sure this series would be for me but hope you love it! Happy weekend!


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