Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. 
Once, she was the Justice of Toren -- a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. 
Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Book One of the Imperial Radch Trilogy
Science Fiction/Space Opera

4 out of 5 stars

Ancillary Justice is a difficult book to get into. Had I not gone into this with the knowledge that many reviewers loved the book but still described it as 'confusing,' the beginning might have turned me off. The narrative relies upon a few key concepts, some of which may be hard to digest. With the start of the novel, Leckie has the responsibility of serving these concepts to readers in a timely manner without overwhelming them with exposition. How well she managed to pull this off will depend on the reader. While I found the introduction to the world to be effective, it was challenging to get through. Nonetheless, I wouldn't consider it a flaw as I can't conceive a better method than what Leckie chose. For anyone who is looking for an action-packed, thrilling space opera, this is not what you're looking for. Ancillary Justice is a challenge, on a variety of levels, and that challenge was most of the appeal for me.

The main challenge of Ancillary Justice relates to gender. Our main character, Breq, is an AI (artificial intelligence) who was created within the Radch empire. The Radchaai don't recognize gender. This isn't because there are no longer males and females, but the Radchaai don't put any importance in these differences and assign expectations on people based on their biological sex. With technological advancements allowing for an equal playing field for both sexes, gender is rendered irrelevant. As Ancillary Justice is written in English, and the Radchaai don't distinguish gender, we're left with Breq using a confusing pronoun system. Everyone that Breq meets, whether they are male or female, is referred to with a feminine pronoun. Breq often struggles to judge whether a person is male or female when visiting a gendered society, but even if she knows that someone is a male, she proceeds to use the feminine pronoun. The majority of readers will face some amount of confusion with this, and if you can't accept it early on in the book, the entirety of the narrative will be a struggle. Ancillary Justice is written in first person, with Breq's voice, and the non-discriminatory use of feminine pronouns is not something that goes away.

Breq's existence as an AI makes her difficult to empathize with, in theory. Her narration could be described as robotic and unfeeling, but I think it would be fallacious to say that Breq feels nothing. Even as an AI, Breq does have emotions. In fact, most of the conflicts in Ancillary Justice are caused by Breq's feelings. The narration doesn't need to indulge in dramatic internal monologues outlining every emotion that Breq experiences. We see her emotions through her actions, as her emotions are something that Breq cannot describe or control, or even realize until she's looking back at her actions after all is said and done. She is as much a slave to emotion as a human would be, which is something Leckie reveals slowly and effectively. That is what makes Breq such a compelling character, and is why I didn't struggle to empathize with her in the end.

Leckie's plotting was a bit chaotic. As I mentioned briefly at the start of this review, a good chunk of the beginning was focused on communicating the conceptual world-building - namely the Radchaai's stance on gender and the what/why/how's of the ancillary system. This is to be expected because this is not a standalone novel but a first novel in a trilogy. The beginning is not only the foundation for this book, but those that come after. Nonetheless, the start of Ancillary Justice is one that requires the reader to push through numerous chapters before we have any sort of thrilling plot or coherent world. The middle, on the other hand, is Ancillary Justice's strong point. The majority of the book features alternating chapters from different times - the 'main timeline' being the present where Breq is a lone ancillary seeking revenge, and the 'past timeline' that reveals how Breq was separated from her ship and her other ancillaries. The combination of these timelines does a wonderful job at raising suspense. When the two timelines become one, however, the book's pace slows. The middle is where it peaks, and all after that just seems to sag in comparison. The actual ending of this book is quite muted and opens more doors than it closes, which can be a bit of a disappointment when we spend the entire book leading up to this great act of revenge that Breq is desperately seeking. Regardless, I can't wait to read book two, Ancillary Sword, and see where Leckie takes this story next.
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1 comment:

  1. Great review and a good overview of the more difficult parts of the book. I found it helpful to just try to ignore the issue of gender and just accept Breq's often confused viewpoint.

    I didn't find Breq to be emotionless at all. She was matter-of-fact in some passages, and she was designed to respond without question to orders, but in each case I found her quite emotionally deep.

    I do have one minor criticism, and that is that you say there were two timelines, but really there are three: firstly, the period relating to the time between when Seivarden was a lieutenant aboard Justice of Toren and the time when Seivarden's ship Sword of Nathtas was destroyed, 1000 years before the book's "present day"; secondly the period when Breq was Justice of Toren; thirdly, the present time.