Title: Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch, #2
What if Iain M. Banks' Culture series had a baby with Ursula K. LeGuin's Hainish Cycle? You'd get Ancillary Sword, an awesome book of its own right. It's uncannily savvy about some of the best things: power, oppression, gender, and self-identity. All with a nice dose of machine empathy.
In many ways, the Radch reminds me of if the Culture had become a dystopia, instead of a utopia, very much due to the human failings so often portrayed in specfic. In Ancillary Sword, the Radch claims to be civilized (in fact, their word for their people means civilized) but through the eyes of the protagonist, we quickly see how its a hotbed of corruption and confusion, even if that's not clear on the surface.
The Radch is a society that deals heavily with give-and-take relationships, with clear hierarchical power, and the need to keep an underclass, where it's enslaving the AIs on their ships or recently annexed people.
In many ways, the previous book, Ancillary Justice, dealt with the former. It explains the background of the protag, a ship who used to be comprised of many ancillaries, or human bodies that play host to the ship's AI. The protagonist ends up being destroyed, although one ancillary survives. Going from being so large to so small, however, is a profound change, and not one that can simply be brushed aside.
But in Ancillary Sword, the human-to-human power struggles are dealt with. When they get to a Station, Breq quickly discovers that things are Not Right. That people are being taken advantage of, in order to keep the top folks in tip-top shape. Some of this has to do with the overarching plot, the split of the Lord of the Radch, but honestly, the more I think about it, the more it seems like this is likely not an isolated incident. This seems to be how the Radch functions.
Breq does some work to make things not-so-awful, and it feels uncomfortable for a bit... whole folks needing a savior thing. But a couple of lanterns are hung on it, and it's continually shown that not only does Ann Leckie find Breq to be a moral shining star, Breq does not consider herself to be good. She's just doing what needs to be done, in her opinion.
There was less experimentation, I felt, in this book. Because we're primarily dealing with the Radch, and not other cultures. In Ancillary Justice, the Radch's use of only female pronouns threw some people, because Justice of Toren was regularly dealing with folks who had a gendered language. The plot is also far more straight forward.
This was a book I had extreme difficulties putting down. The only thing that saddens me? I'm going to have to wait months for the next one.