This is not a ploy to review two books at once because I’m like a thousand books in review-debt. I swear.
Instead, this is what happens when you read a super-sci-fi-y story about spaceships, aliens, and AI, then switch to a classically fantasy story with goblins and elves, and find out they’re actually fascinatingly similar books with a lot to say about power, empire, and administration.
Both of them delighted me. Both of them disappointed me. Both of them are worth reading.
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword is the sequel to last year’s Ancillary Justice, which won approximately 827 awards because it was so awesome. The plot defies easy summarization, so I’ll just say it involves a semi-human soldier who used to be a spaceship, a vast multi-planet Empire, and a secret civil war conducted within the fractured consciousness of the multi-bodied emperor. Yeah. And also gender doesn’t exist as a social construction, and the narrative jumps back and forth in time like a chronologically-impaired ping pong ball. These aren’t books for the faint at heart.
Ancillary Sword involves all those elements played out on a much smaller scale. Breq, the former-spaceship-person, has chosen the less-evil side in the civil war and been assigned to rule and protect a single colony. The planet turns out to be riddled with injustice, political intrigue, and all the splintered identities that colonialism produces. The plot is mostly Breq sitting in meetings, trying to find solutions to unsolvable socio-political dilemmas.
The Goblin Emperor is Katherine Addison’s very well-reviewed first novel. Instead of complex, centuries-old Breq, our main character is an adorably naïve young half-goblin named Maia. Maia is an unwanted prince tucked away in a lonely corner of his father’s empire, until oops—his Dad and half-dozen older brothers are all killed in an airship crash. And isolated young Maia is now the Emperor. Having inherited a massive imperial state riddled with all the problems of a massive imperial state, the plot is mostly Maia sitting in meetings, trying to find solutions to unsolvable socio-political dilemmas.
See where I’m headed here?
But first: Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor are both intricate, well-woven books, with good-hearted characters and the kind of respectably-utilitarian prose you need to carry you through an unfamiliar world. Neither of them could be confidently recommended to anyone who wasn’t neck-deep in their genre, though. Here’s why:
“The Mazan’theileian was not part of the Untheileneise Court proper, but had been connected to it by a covered bridge during the reign of Edretanthiar III, in the delicate lacelike stonework typical of that era. The bridge was called Usharu’s Ladder, for the Adremaza who had commissioned it, and aspirants to the Athmaz’are spoke of “climbing the ladder” or “falling off the ladder” in describing their progress,” (The Goblin Emperor, 297).
Yikes. But for an experienced (and tolerant) genre-reader, it’s worth wading through it.
Both of them are also fundamentally about the process of ruling empires. Not the exciting parts—no conquests, no rebellions, no wars to end all wars. Nope. Instead, these are books about administrating empires—the slow, grinding practicalities that transform empires into functioning states. If you don’t believe me, note that at least 90% of the scenes in both books consist of meetings. How do we deal with the undocumented persons living in squalor in the Undergarden? How will this bridge affect the profitability of the silk trade? Are the emperor’s household staff sufficiently warm during the winter months?
Part of me (the part of me that studied empire in grad school) is deeply gratified to see such loving attention given to the most skipped-over aspects of colonial rule. The British Empire was certainly predicated on both the threat and reality of state violence, but gunboats and Lee-Enfield rifles won’t rule a colony for you. For that, you need a vast bureaucratic network, khaki-clad and armed with forms that look like the one on the left. Both Addison and Leckie know that.
But the rest of me suspects it’s difficult to write a truly gripping fantasy about administration. It’s like trying to write an exciting story about zoning ordinances, or the pink fuzzy mold on expired cottage cheese.
What these books do much more successfully is offer a surprisingly subtle, complex vision of power itself. Both Breq and Maia survey their empires from its loftiest towers, but both of them find this perspective dangerously limited. The voices of the disempowered—the plantation workers in Ancillary Sword and the socialist factory workers in The Goblin Emperor—make themselves heard in startling, sudden ways. Breq and Maia find that power itself is a reciprocal illusion, which becomes dangerously fragile as soon as their audience stops believing in it.
But in the end, both these books left me with a wormy, uncertain sense of dissatisfaction. I think it’s because both Breq and Maia, both Leckie’s Radch Empire and Addison’s Untheileneise Court, keep their power. And I will never love stories about maintaining empires as much as I love stories about tearing them down brick by brick. As much as I liked Maia—good-hearted, uncertain little goblin king that he is—my sympathies lie more genuinely with the radical socialist cell trying to destabilize the monarchy itself. As much as I admired Breq and her sense of justice, I hope the tea-workers rise up and ally with the Presger to destroy the Radchaai.
Fantasy and science fiction have a long history of romanticizing power. My shelves are full of high kings and all-powerful emperors, and the loyal knights and captains who owe them fealty (what Ruskin called the “noblest state in which a man can live in this world”). Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor are not blind adherents to this tradition. They’re smarter, more complex, and ultimately larger-hearted images of both rulers and the ruled.
But still: I want the ruling classes to tremble.
 It is a little.
 I should in fairness mention that Ancillary Sword has moments of similar world-building density—but they tend to be more important to the plot. I could confidently explain the socio-political structure of Athoek Station, but not so Addison’s Untheleneise Court.
 These are real examples, kids.
 John Ruskin, Unto this Last and Other Writings, (London: Penguin Classics, 1997), 86.