#1 – Ancillary Justice Book Review

Quick Facts

  • Ancillary Justice has gotten tremendous amounts of critical acclaim. The novel won the following awards: The Arthur C. Clarke Award, The BSFA Award, The Hugo AwardThe Locus Award, and The Nebula Award.
  • The book belongs to a sub-genre of science fiction called “space opera”. Scifi fans know what that means already, but if you’re new to the genre, space opera involves melodramatic adventure set in space.
  • The titular “ancillaries” are similar to Star Trek‘s Borg. In the context of Ancillary Justice, they are reanimated humans powered by the same artificial intelligence that powers the Imperial starships in the novel.
  • The book is the first novel from writer Ann Leckie, and it’s also the first book in the “Imperial Radch” trilogy. The sequels are unpublished at the time I write this, but the next book in the series will be titled Ancillary Sword. It’s due to be published in October 2014.
  • Ann Leckie has also published short stories in Realms of FantasyStrange Horizons, and Subterranean Magazine.

What I Thought of Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice, Winner of the Nebula and the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction NovelI haven’t read a science fiction novel that I’ve enjoyed as much as Ancillary Justice in a long time. My daughters complained that I was spending too much time reading and not enough time paying attention to them. They’re probably right, but at the same time, I think I’m setting a good example for them by not only reading excellent fiction, but demonstrating how enjoyable that experience can be.

Leckie prose is excellent, but readers who are unfamiliar with some of the more common science fiction tropes present in the novel might feel a little out-of-sorts or left behind. For example, a Dyson sphere is mentioned at one point during the story–most people who don’t read scifi won’t know what that is. The idea of the artificial intelligence of the ship being the same consciousness as the main character might also be hard to wrap your head around.

It’s a challenging book in multiple respects. One aspect of the Imperial Radch society that’s interesting and challenging to the reader is that they have no concept of gender. People in their society have advanced to the point where they can choose which fashions and which secondary sexual characteristics they prefer, regardless of gender, so it’s just irrelevant in their language. Since the story is told in the first person by a member of that culture, everyone is referred to as “she”, even when they’re members of another culture which does recognize gender differences.

Also, the main character has multiple identities:

  • Breq
  • The Justice of Toren
  • One Esk

Because she used to be the AI of the ship, Breq is called by various names throughout the book, depending on her role at the time. Breq is her name after she becomes autonomous, The Justice of Toren is the name of the ship that she was the AI for, and One Esk was the name she went by in her role as an ancillary of that ship.

Beware: Spoilers Ahead

The story takes place during two different time frames. The story being told during the presence is about Breq, a now-autonomous ancillary which used to be the AI powering the ship Justice of Toren. Breq is on a quest to get a weapon which she plans to use to assassinate the emperor. Along the way, she rescues another Imperial citizen, Seivarden, who becomes Breq’s foil and/or sidekick.

The second story, told in alternating chapters, is a flashback to twenty years before. This part of the novel explains how Breq became autonomous and why she wants to assassinate the emperor. It also establishes much of the backstory of the Radchai Empire and how they conquer and then assimilate cultures. Like most empires in space operas, they’re evil, even though they don’t think of themselves as such. They see themselves as bringing civilization to the unfortunates on other planets, and their goal is to do so as efficiently as possible.

Leckie engages in some detailed world-building, and the combination of the empire, along with their religious attitudes and their gender attitudes, is distinct from most of the other science fiction I’ve read. At the same time, much of it is familiar, so I didn’t feel completely lost. It’s original without being so offbeat as to be incomprehensible.

I loved the opening paragraph, which had an almost noir-ish sensibility about it:

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.

Of course, Ancillary Justice has similarities to other space operas and science fiction tales. I’ve already mentioned the similarity between the ancillaries of this book and the Borg in Star Trek. But the evil empire concept is nothing new, either. It’s as old a trope as Flash Gordon‘s Ming the Merciless and as familiar as Darth Vader and the Emperor in the Star Wars movies. But the book distinguishes itself from some of these other examples by making the empire a little less generic, and the emperor herself doesn’t twirl her mustache as often or as obviously as these other examples.

Breq, the main character, is surprisingly easy to relate to. Apparently the logic that powers the artificial intelligences in this society work better when they have an emotion sub-program. So for all intents and purposes, Breq’s a person just like you or me. One of her quirks, as a partially-artificial person, is that she measure time precisely. As she narrates, she’ll often explain that something happened “six seconds later” or “four minutes later”. It’s a deft touch that emphasizes how different she is from you or I.

Breq also has some of the characteristics of some of your more rascally and badass space rogues. I enjoyed her negotiations with the tavern keeper in the beginning of the novel, when she is buying a snow sled, and they’re haggling about the price.

She explains, “No, all of it. We will agree now. And if anyone comes after me later trying to demand more, or tries to rob me, they die.”

I’ll leave it to your imagination whether or not the tavern keeper’s pals come after her and try to rob her, and whether or not she kills them when and if they do.

Themes: The book explores themes of identity, culture, religion, and gender roles. I don’t think Lecki is trying to get a message across. It’s just a fun story with a lot of ideas to think about mixed in with the action.

Pros: The prose is excellent. The story and the characters are interesting. The ideas, or at least their combination and execution, are original and thoughtful.

Cons: Newcomers to science fiction might find some of the ideas in the book confusing, especially as they relate to gender and the identities of characters. Breq, as it turns out, isn’t the only intelligence inhabiting multiple bodies and being cut off from them.

Favorite Lines: I had a couple of lines I really liked:

  • “Surely it isn’t illegal here to complain about young people these days? How cruel. I had thought it a basic part of human nature, one of the few universally practiced human customs.”
  • “If you’re going to make a desperate, hopeless act of defiance you should make it a good one.”

Finally: I recommend this book to people who enjoy space opera or science fiction. It’s a lot of fun, with memorable characters, a great plot, and a doozy of a cliffhanger ending which sets up the next novel really well. Scifi novices should give Ancillary Justice a try, too, but be patient and willing to re-read sections until they make sense.

Next Up: Book #2 is Redshirts by John Scalzi, which I’ve read before, but I’m re-reading it as part of my project.

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