Author: Ann Leckie
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Date: October 1 2013
Hardcover: 416 Pages
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.
Stand alone or series: First in a series
How did we get this book: Review copies from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): e-ARC and print
Why did we read this book: We’ve both had Ancillary Justice on the radar for ages and have been dying to read it – especially since we’ve seen so many awesome reviews for the book. (Seriously, we can’t remember seeing a single negative review for this title.)
Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.
I haven’t felt this excited about a debut since I first read and adored The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Yes, this is that good. But more than that, Ancillary Justice is exciting because it is fun as well as clever and makes me want to jump up and down and to hand copies to just about everybody I know. It hits all of my sweet spots too in terms of how the narrative is constructed, in the way that we could question the complete reliability of its narrator, and the thought-provoking topics that it addresses (both directly and indirectly) whilst still being thrilling and easy to read.
Here is the gist of it: in the far, far, far future, the Radch empire has conquered – and annexed – the galaxy. The main character is called Breq and she (more on that later) used to be the spaceship Justice of Toren as well as all of its ancillary, an AI whose consciousness used to be divided into multiple segments (or, bodies of dead soldiers) and who is now one, alone, separated.
The narrative alternates between now and then. The “now” shows Breq as the last surviving segment of Justice of Toren, on a – for all intents and purposes – suicide mission to kill The Lord of the Radch. The “then” part of the narrative takes place 18 years before the present time when Breq was still Justice of Toren and present at the annexation of a new planet when things go awry. The timelines proceed in a crescendo toward Moment of Doom as the revelations pile up and the extent of Breq’s motivation – and why she is no longer part of collective mind she used to be – are explored.
In a way Ancillary Justice is a study about identity, of the “I am” and what it means to be this “I.” Breq was Justice of Toren for two thousand years before she became a separate entity. Who is Breq, how it/she identifies, the question of whether she can even be human is explored and examined in multiple occasions throughout the novel. There is a question of person but also of personality and it is both thoughtful and fun to follow Breq in her journey.
But beyond the personal, the book also scrutinises the idea of the “I” in planetary terms too. The idea of cohesion of different peoples from different social standing under one Empire, and the extent that this is even a peaceful possibility. The Radch empire is one that is viewed from multiples perspectives – internally and externally, from people who have been Radchaai from birth to those who have become Radchaai after annexation, from those who believe in the positive aspects of colonisation to those who only see the negative (and even those who see both). It’s interesting that in their language “citizen” and “civilization” are almost interchangeable.
Is the Radch empire and its colonisation simply straightforward evil? Or is there room for more subtle approaches? The idea of social change is at the core of the novel and as such, the exploration of the moral issues regarding empire, colonisation and personal choice.
I do love for example how Breq observes an encounter between a non-Radchaai child and its parent after a stressful situation:
”A Radchaai parent would have put her arms around her daughter, kissed her, told her how relieved she was her daughter was well, maybe even would have wept. Some Radchaai would have thought this parent cold and affectionless. But I was sure that would have been a mistake. They sat down together on a bench, sides touching, as the girl gave her report, what she knew of the patient’s condition, and what had happened out in the snow with the herd, and the ice devil. When she had finished, her mother patted her twice on the knee, briskly, and it was as though she were suddenly a different girl, taller, stronger, now she had, it seemed, not only her mother’s strong, comforting presence, but her approval.”
Obviously there are considerable problems with the Radchaai and their empire (to put it very, very mildly indeed) but I loved that being cold and emotionless was not one of those problems. Past that, I also love the acknowledgement above that there are different ways of showing affection. This is only one of many details that made this book so wonderful to me.
And then we have the question of language especially when it concerns the use of pronouns. The Radch do have gender identity but that identity is not discernible by the way they look or dress or by the roles they have. And so, Breq’s language – Radchaai language – doesn’t have gendered pronouns so she uses only one pronoun – “she” – to refer to all characters (expect for when she is speaking in another language that does have gendered pronouns). This is of course, a pointed authorial choice and it does have interesting (and inevitable) repercussions on how one reads the book. To me, I was constantly having to tell myself off because I kept trying to guess the gender of each character and to force them into one or another gender. So on top of everything, this is also a book that allowed me to confront my own fucked-up ideas of gender and binaries for which I am thankful.
I hope that these thoughts don’t make it sound as though Ancillary Justice is a difficult, inaccessible book. Because I don’t think it is: beyond the exploration of identity, the limitations of humanity and of the consequences of imperialism it also has awesome moments that show the importance of loyalty and friendship, for example. It has gut-wrenching moments of violence but also super cool adventurous moments. Plus, it’s all about personal revenge and social/political change.
I love this – LOVED THIS. It’s definitely a top 10 book of 2013 for me. Actually, this might well be my favourite novel of 2013 so far. I can’t think of the last time I was this excited about a sequel.
I wholeheartedly agree with Ana – I cannot find a fault in this truly amazing, awe-inspiring debut novel from Ann Leckie (an author who has instantly become an “auto-buy” for me). Ancillary Justice is the real deal. It’s easily the best science fiction novel I’ve read since Stephen Baxter’s Ark – and in all honesty, Justice is a far superior book in terms of scope, worldbuilding and writing. Let me revise that: Ancillary Justice is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. This is not hyperbole; Ancillary Justice is just that damn good.
As Ana says, this is a book set in the very, very distant future. It is a future in which the Radchaai have conquered and annexed societies throughout the universe, absorbing different peoples and systems into its ever-expansive reach. The Radch are masters of the galaxy, with superior technology and warships that are actual sentient forms of artificial intelligence, with numerous (human) bodies – ancillaries – controlled by that same intelligence. To quote another fictional alien collective, Resistance is futile. The Radch always win, and anyone that opposes them is silenced – through death, or their human bodies are put into the ancillary program (essentially the same thing as death). It is against this backdrop that Ancillary Justice is set, diving into the story of one such Radchaai warship that has fallen from grace. We don’t know what has happened to Breq, the main character of this book, other than the fact that she is a single consciousness that was once the formidable Justice of Toren with thousands of ancillary bodies and parts. Through chapters that alternate between real-time and flashbacks, we learn Breq’s story and her reason for vengeance.
You’ll notice I used female pronouns for Breq – although gender is something entirely fluid in Ancillary Justice, as is the concept of a single self or consciousness. Combined with Leckie’s awe-inspiring attention to language and cultural detail, these concept of self and gender are some of the most fascinating parts of this astonishing novel. As Ana says, the Radch have no concept of gender and everyone is referred to, simply, in the feminine. Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren is both “I” and “many” – a type of hive collective that is many, but all under a single, singular consciousness. It’s hard to describe Breq, because as an artificial intelligence, one doesn’t want to foist human characteristics and labels in an attempt to personify Breq – that would be wrong. Breq is complex, an unreliable narrator, and one who displays human emotions but is decidedly not human. Breq is Breq, who has lived for centuries in myriad bodies – more akin to the failings, I think, of the Cylons in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, than, say Data of Star Trek TNG. Even that comparison isn’t accurate – but it’s hard to describe the amazing feat of characterization and writing that Ann Leckie has pulled off with Ancillary Justice; suffice it to say, your notions of self and gender and sentience will be provoked, torn apart, and rearranged.
Similarly, I loved the focus on language and culture in this book. Breq is constantly questioning her use of pronouns and assigning gender to different non-Radch peoples; similarly, polyglot Breq alone is attuned to the nuances of language and culture and shares that knowledge with the reader. For example:
“What’s the difference,” Lieutenant Awn said, so quietly it didn’t seem like a break in the silence, “between citizens and noncitizens?”
“One is civilized,” said Lieutenant Skaaiat said with a laugh, “and the other isn’t.” The joke only made sense in Radchaai – citizen and civilized are the same word. To be Radchaai is to be civilized.
This kind of attention to detail – relayed by the protagonist in a clever, non-infodumpy way, is brilliant in my mind. This is to say nothing of the exquisite detail of varying cultures, from music to parenting styles, from Radch armor to the importance of genetics and bloodlines, that are disclosed and discovered throughout Breq’s narrative. I mean, damn this book is impressive.
And of course, at its heart, this is a revenge story. We learn what has happened to Breq, now just a single ancillary body, and damn it’s a good reveal. The way the story unfolds, alternating between the then and now, is wholly engaging. I know that the concepts in this book sound both abstract and complicated, but in truth Ancillary Justice (though dense) is an easy book to read because it is so immersive and never once stumbles in its telling. Above all else – or, to stick with the theme of collectiveness – Ancillary Justice is more than just the sum of its parts. Like Breq, Ancillary Justice is utterly memorable, utterly distinct, and utterly original.
I loved this book, and it is without question one of my top 10 best reads of 2013 – possibly one of my top 10 science fiction reads, ever.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From chapter 1:
The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it. It was minus fifteen degrees Celsius and a storm had passed just hours before. The snow stretched smooth in the wan sunrise, only a few tracks leading into a nearby ice-block building. A tavern. Or what passed for a tavern in this town.
There was something itchingly familiar about that out-thrown arm, the line from shoulder down to hip. But it was hardly possible I knew this person. I didn’t know anyone here. This was the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it was possible to be. I was only here, on this planet, in this town, because I had urgent business of my own. Bodies in the street were none of my concern.
Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do. Even after all this time it’s still a new thing for me not to know, not to have orders to follow from one moment to the next. So I can’t explain to you why I stopped and with one foot lifted the naked shoulder so I could see the person’s face.
Frozen, bruised, and bloody as she was, I knew her. Her name was Seivarden Vendaai, and a long time ago she had been one of my officers, a young lieutenant, eventually promoted to her own command, another ship. I had thought her a thousand years dead, but she was, undeniably, here. I crouched down and felt for a pulse, for the faintest stir of breath.
Read the rest here.
Additional Thoughts: Ann Leckie wrote an amazing post for us on legacy and female writers. Go HERE to read it and to enter to win a copy of the book.
Ana: Dare I? I can’t really think of a single thing that is not right about the book. So Yeah: 10
Thea: 10 – Utter Perfection
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