Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary SwordI read Leckie’s Ancillary Justice last summer and loved the heck out of it even though I was absolutely baffled by almost all of it. Person who used to be a spaceship? Difficulties in using gendered language? Political machinations? Awesome and also mind-breaking.

I think Leckie and/or her publishers figured that out, because this novel is differently structured and much easier to read. Our main character, Breq, still used to be a spaceship, but we’re only focused on her present as an individual person so there’s not as much of the switching back and forth between points of view (although there is still some). She’s also primarily hanging out with the single-gender-pronoun people, so everyone’s a she and that’s just how it is, no explanations on every other page. And even the political machinations are simpler, with most of the subterfuge showing up early and the narrative having plenty of time to explain what’s going on. Huzzah!

In this installment, Breq is sent by the leader of the Radch (civilization, more or less) to check out a station for, um, reasons?, and when she gets there she finds herself embroiled in some weirdness from another ship stationed there, some class warfare on the station itself, and more class warfare on the planet below. Breq spends most of her time trying to make things better for all the inhabitants of the area by working to improve their living conditions, trying to talk sense into those who would discriminate for arbitrary reasons, and taking various stands against stupidity.

This book is not nearly as page-turning and exciting and crazypants as the first book, but it does have a nice slow-burning plotline in the weird spaceship at the beginning and there is constant tension between Breq and pretty much everyone else in the story that keeps things interesting. I really love the world that Leckie has created and it was great to spend time in it again.

Recommendation: For fans of the first book, which you probably should read before this one, but also fans of space machinations in general.

Rating: 8/10

Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to BraggsvilleSo. This book. It, um, it exists? And is weird. Super weird. The end. Recommendation: Weird.

Seriously, though. I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I got into this book. The jacket copy promised me four Berkeley (sorry, Cal) students staging a “performative intervention” at a Civil War reenactment in BFE Georgia, and it delivered. It promised me satire and skewering and weird, and ohhhh it delivered. But it did not tell me what I was getting into.

So, okay, here are the parts I can tell you without spoilers. The protagonist is a white kid called D’aron from BFE Georgia who gets into UC Berkeley and proceeds to become exactly the kind of pedantic, overzealous, idealistic nerd you’d expect a sheltered eighteen-year-old away from home for the first time to become. Read: sooooooo pedantic. Daron (who drops the apostrophe at college) quickly makes friends with a white chick from Iowa, a black dude from Chicago, and a politically incorrect Asian dude from San Francisco, and as one thing leads to another they end up planning the aforementioned intervention, which involved dressing up as slaveowners and a hanged slave and seeing what reactions they get out of the local Georgia folk.

That in itself would be a fascinating book. Over-educated kids do something pretty stupid, maybe teach rural folks a lesson but probably learn more of a lesson themselves about compassion for their fellow man or whatever.

But then, things go juuuuust a little bit wrong at the reenactment/intervention and suddenly Daron is forced to reevaluate pretty much everything that has ever happened to him, and things get super duper weird from there on out.

The book ends up being a really strange and interesting look into race relations and inbred prejudice and the way people value and validate the things they believe in and how what one group thinks is totally normal is absolutely unfathomable to another group, whether we’re talking Civil War reenactments or Instagram hashtags. And the author doesn’t focus on just black vs. white or urban vs. rural or college-educated vs. trade-educated or West Coast vs. The South or managers vs. wage-earners, but makes a case for every side in every war of stereotypes he could apparently fit into this book. It is an impressive feat.

But be warned — the narrative is just as overzealous and pedantic as D’aron himself, which makes a lot of sense and also makes it at times incredibly difficult to read. Think Ted Mosby in full “Uh, I believe it’s pronounced, ‘cham-uh-lee-un'” mode and then add ten. Or, for you literary types, it’s a lot like Colson Whitehead‘s quasi-stream-of-consciousness-with-lots-of-big-words style or really a lot like that one Jonathan Franzen essay I read where he rags on people who don’t want to read works that are hard. I mean, there’s literally a chapter written as a research paper. If you can get through the writing, there’s a great book inside it, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing just go ahead and skip this one. Franzen will judge you; I won’t.

Recommendation: For super-nerds who cringe when they remember their college pedantry and people who need a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone thinks like an academic.

Rating: 8/10