I read, and enjoyed, last year's winner, Ancillary Justice,* and so I was excited to see the sequel also garnered a nom. And this time, it wouldn't take me the majority of the book to realize that feminine pronouns were used for everyone (I wasn't reading carefully and just assumed that everyone was female before that. D'oh!).
Breq, the main character of the books, is a former ancillary of the Radch empire. Ancillaries are human bodies of POWs who have a ship AI's consciousness uploaded (via a process that is horrible for both) into their body, thereby killing the "person" over a few days. Breq is the only surviving ancillary out of thousands of a now-destroyed AI, and she continues to adapt to only having one body rather than thousands plus access to thoughts of the crew of her ship. She is now captain of a ship, and is regaining a larger sense of her crew via implants and her interaction with this AI.
This 3000+ year old empire spans a large chunk of space and is opposed by at least 3 non-human sentient species, including the ludicrously more advanced Presger (who may, or may not, be working to undermine the Radch). The Radch is ruled by Anaander Mianaai, a former(?) human whose consciousness is uploaded into bodies across the universe (but that are not instantaneously linked). And that consciousness is split into at least two warring factions. The empire is controlled via massive, AI-controlled ships, previously crewed largely by ancillaries, but now with humans. The crew all have implants that allow the ship's AI (and its captain) to observe their vitals and hear and see what the crew members do**.
But that's just worldbuilding - the actual plot follows Breq as she goes to try to make amends to the sibling of a friend she had to kill. This does not go well. She then gets caught up in the local politics of the system while also trying to figure out if either of the Mianaai factions or the Presger are influencing events there. I've managed to make a fairly fast-paced, character-driven novel sound dry and bland, but it's not. There are explosions, political intrigue, a super-creepy "human" grown by aliens, and more. I really enjoyed it and will be reading the final book in the trilogy as soon as it's out.
- Breq is just awesome -- she has a rigid code of honor and doesn't have any fucks left to give if that bothers people. She uses her new position of power to right wrongs, regardless of whether that would please Mianaai... or the people involved.
- More Presger weirdness! They were hinted at in the first book, and they come into play a bit more here. A massively powerful, mysterious culture that can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants is clearly terrifying to all involved. And the humans have no idea what the Presger consider good or bad, so all they can do is avoid them and hope they haven't pissed them off. I've worked for bosses that were Presger, sans technology.
- Leckie does a great job of letting us inside the captain-AI interface and how this reflects on their differences and similarities. And by comparing her with another captain, we see how she differs from a standard human. The concept of identity carries over from the first book.
- Not much, really. I was pretty bummed that it was over so soon.
I enjoyed it even more than its predecessor; and I unreservedly loved it. The lack of gendering can be frustrating at first, but that's part of the immersion into the culture (and a bit of a shock when a conquered culture that retains gendering in their language pop up).
I give it 4.5 out of 5. Highly recommended!
Where I rank it in my Read of the Hugos:
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman (Not a nominee, but amazing)
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Not a nominee, but very good)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
No Award (this is an option in the rather complicated, but logical, voting process)
* Commas were on sale this week.
** The NSA data gatherer reading this just had an orgasm at the thought of so much surveillance ability.