Ancillary Justice

by Ann Leckie

Cover image

Series: Imperial Radch #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 0-316-24662-X
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 416

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As Ancillary Justice opens, Breq is on an icy planet trying to track down a person who has gone rather thoroughly to ground. As her search continues, the reader slowly learns the context of that search, which is only the latest step of a long and quixotic exercise in private determination. She was set on her path by events twenty years previous, told in interleaved flashbacks, that have left her greatly diminished and thrust outside of any of the context of her over thousand years of life. Breq was Justice of Toren, a starship and AI that possessed thousands of ancillaries, human bodies slaved to her mind. Now only this one remains, and nothing exists of her former life other than this goal.

It's always hard to write a review of a book that I loved this much. I want to find some way to grab the reader and shake them and say "you have to read this!" without giving away any of the delicious details. That's particularly difficult with Ancillary Justice, since one of the delights of this book is the slow unfolding of not only the plot but the background and motivations behind the plot. There is so much beneath the surface of Breq's methodical intent, and discovering all the nuances is utterly delightful. This is also a book that is very deeply concerned with identity, and which does one of the best jobs I've seen in science fiction of showing a non-human first-person protagonist: close enough to human to permit identification and comprehension, but far enough away for delightful sparks of unexpected insight or thought-provoking difference.

Breq is a ship, and AIs are central to this story, so the comparison that comes immediately to mind is with Iain M. Banks. Leckie's role for ship AIs is much different than the structure of Banks's Culture, but I think this is still an apt comparison. Like Banks, Leckie is writing large-scale space opera dominated by a meddling empire that follows some familiar human patterns but not others. Banks's Culture takes a less direct approach with its meddling; the Radch has a more Roman attitude towards preventative conquest and citizenship. But both deal with large-scale issues of politics, culture, and conquest. Both also write excellent AIs, but I think Leckie is more successful than Banks at giving her AIs inhuman properties and creating a sense of eerie alienness that sometimes fades almost entirely and sometimes comes sharply to the surface. The first-person perspective helps considerably there.

But where Ancillary Justice truly shined for me is in the interpersonal relationships, and in the insight they provided into character and motive. At the start of the book, Breq finds a drug addict dying in the cold and rescues her, bringing her along on her search for lack of a better option. Breq's relationship with Seivarden is complex, difficult for both of them, badly asymmetric at the start, and develops into something brilliant. At the start of the book, Seivarden is easy to dislike, and Breq's tone is refreshingly bracing and forthright. But through the course of the book Seivarden grows into something much more, in a way that I found both believable and incredibly compelling. And Leckie does this without falling into any of the typical relationship patterns, without introducing artificial romance (or, indeed, any romance at all, which is an excellent choice here), and without compromising the personalities of either character. It's masterfully done.

One of the most amazing things about this book to me is that it's a first novel. I never would have guessed that from reading it. It's beautifully paced, the characterization is deep and compelling, and Leckie avoids any sign of the typical first-novel problem of stuffing the book with too much Stuff. Ancillary Justice is a capable and confident novel that builds a compelling world and even more compelling characters. I liked it more than I like most of the Culture novels, which is saying quite a lot, but Leckie offers much of the same scope with deeper and more personal characterization and a tighter plot.

I haven't yet remarked on one aspect of this book that every other review seems to remark on: its treatment of gender. The Radch do not recognize or care about gender distinctions, and therefore Breq struggles throughout the book with proper gender labeling in much the same way that a native English speaker tends to struggle with grammatical gender when learning a Romance language, except with more social consequences. Leckie has chosen to represent this in the novel by having Breq refer to everyone uniformly as "she." This has its pluses and minuses: it still supports a binary gender concept where a gender-neutral pronoun might not, but given all the negative reaction this book got just for using "she," a gender-neutral pronoun might be a bridge too far for a lot of readers. I thought it created a nice bit of alienation, a way of forcing the reader to look at gender markers from the outside and a way to point out how arbitrary many of them are. It was also interesting to see how surprised I was at various points in the book when it became obvious that some person Breq had been calling "she" in the first-person narration turned out, from story context, to probably be male.

That said, I think this part of the book is overblown in reviews. It's often the first thing people mention, but while it was a nice side bit of world-building, I don't think it's that central to the story. I'm particularly baffled by the handful of people who complained about it, since it's not intrusive and it quickly fades into the background apart from occasional necessary shifts of mental image. (It does create the impression of a world containing only women, but I found that a nice change from the more common impression in space opera of a world containing only men.)

Ancillary Justice has already won the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards and tied for the BSFA award for best novel, and I'm happy to report that it deserves all of those. I haven't yet read all of the other Hugo nominees, but it's hard to imagine a world in which it won't top my ballot. This is a fantastic novel, by far the best thing I've read so far this year. I'm delighted that it's the first book of a trilogy, since I'm not done with either the world or the characters yet, but it stands well on its own and reaches a satisfying conclusion. I recommend it to everyone, but particularly to anyone who likes Banks, intelligent ships, or who is looking for thoughtful and complex space opera.

Followed by Ancillary Sword.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-06-30

Last modified and spun 2015-01-05