Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Imperial Radch
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA
Awards Nominated: Philip K. Dick, John W. Campbell

The Book:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren--a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose--to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.”

Ancillary Justice is Ann Leckie’s debut novel, and one that is garnering quite a lot of attention, both on blogs and in award committees.  I’ve seen so many reviews of this one online lately that I feel a little silly for being so late to the party.

My Thoughts:

Ancillary Justice has reminded me once again how much I love space opera.  It may not bring all that much new to the subgenre, but it makes use of some of my favorite conventions and approaches many topics in way that I especially enjoy.  The dominant culture in this universe is the expansionist Radchaai empire, but there is enough interaction with other worlds to imply that the universe is culturally diverse.  Through the Radch, we see an unforgiving view of colonialism and the philosophy behind it, as well as the kinds of justifications reasonably decent people use to defend their support of corrupt and unjust systems.  The story switches between the present day vengeance quest of Breq and the back-story that gradually provides a narrative and emotional context for the present.  I found both stories equally engaging, and I appreciated the chance to see the different formats of consciousness that Breq/One Esk experienced.

The spaceships of the Radch are run by complex AIs, which also control contingents of ‘ancillaries’—humans forcibly co-opted into the AI’s group mind. ‘Breq’ is a single body of one of these ancillaries, and One Esk is the group of bodies that formed her consciousness in the back-story sections.  I was impressed by the clarity with which scenes from the group mind were portrayed.   The narrative constantly head-hopped from one body to the next, but it managed to keep the actions of each segment clearly distinct and yet still communicate the overall personality of One Esk.  Breq seems like less of a narrative challenge to portray, but I also appreciated how her biases and priorities shaped the focus of the narrative.

The main supporting characters, Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn in the present and past stories, respectively, are both intriguing in their own right and as reflections of the convictions and values of Breq.  Lieutenant Awn gained her rank through merit, rather than family connections, and she is a person of integrity stuck in a difficult situation.  One Esk works closely with her, and thinks of her highly.  Seivarden, on the other hand, is an arrogant classist who can’t cope with a future that seems to be moving away from her ideals, and One Esk detests her.  However, Seivarden is a dynamic character throughout the story, and I enjoyed the way her relationship with One Esk developed.  It is the character of One Esk, and her relationships with Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn, that drives the story forward.

Those who have read the novel may now want to correct my pronoun use, since Seivarden is a male human, which brings me to Ancillary Justice’s famous gender treatment.  Radch culture and language does not distinguish gender, so everyone is referred to as ‘she’, by default. I did not find that this made the novel any more difficult to read, since gender is basically irrelevant to the story that is being told.  Seivarden is a case in point, since knowing that she is male tells us much less than basically any other given detail of her personality or history.  To me, the complete absence of gendered personality traits, gendered behavior and gender-based roles felt like a breath of fresh air.

My Rating: 5/5

I pretty much loved everything about Ancillary Justice, and I think it is both a highly impressive debut novel and one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  The novel is very character-driven, and I loved reading about One Esk/Breq, as well as the major secondary characters, Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn.  The use of female default gender was an interesting idea, and I liked how it highlighted the irrelevance of gender in the story. I am excited to see what is in store for the upcoming sequel!

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