Genre: Space Opera, Military SF
Length: 386 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Publication Date: October 1st 2013
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.
I have been meaning to read this book for years now but I was oddly afraid that I wouldn’t like it. However, Ancillary Justice has been recommended by quite a few people who know what books I like so I decided to finally take the plunge during Sci Fi Month. (Yeah I know this review is going up after Sci-Fi Month but I read the book during the month of November, so it still counts!).
Ancillary Justice follows Breq, an ancillary, a body controlled by the AI of a spaceship. In this world, a ship can control thousands of those ancillaries, bodies taken from the victims of the Radch’s annexation. For thousands of year, Breq was attached to Justice of Toren, in fact, she was Justice of Toren as well as all the other extensions of the ship. Think of ancillaries as part of a body, they each have their functions but they form one entity.
Twenty years before the opening scene of the book, Breq was betrayed and violently separated from Justice of Toren. She is now a rogue ancillary determined to end the people who deprived her of her ship even if it means ripping apart the entire empire. However, how do you destroy a society when its leader has thousand of bodies and you are alone and presumed dead by everyone?
Ancillary Justice was all the rage in 2013 and 2014 when I was just starting to get into science fiction. At first I was intimidated by it because of all the praises it had for its originality, its complexity, ideas and for how it portrayed gender. In a lot of ways, I agree with the praise, I never read anything quite like it and I was definitely impressed by quite a few things. The worldbuilding and the history of the Radch were fascinating and I was pulled into the story very quickly. However, I don’t necesseraly think that it’s one of the best science fiction book I ever read.
Mind you, I do think it is indeed quite good but it still had definite debut-book flaws that prevented me from entirely loving it. My issues were oddly with the two elements that made the series blew up as much as it did: the way it treats gender and the narration style.
Breq is Radchian, her society doesn’t follow your typical gender norms, indeed, in her society, people use the same pronouns for everyone and gender doesn’t really exist. Because of that, Breq automatically use female pronouns for everyone, regardless of the fact that in their society, they might be adressed in a different way. When she speaks other languages, she struggles to pick what is considered the right pronoun in the specific society because she cannot associate any elements to a particular gender.
That makes it, in theory at least, quite interesting to try to associate a gender to a protagonist. Indeed Breq will automatically use a female pronoun while other characters might use another pronoun for the same character. For example, a character that was referred as a “she” by Breq for several chapters was adressed as a “he” by other characters that were not Radchian in the rest of the book.
A lot of people were fascinated by this element but it didn’t work for me as well as I hoped. I don’t tend to picture characters in my head while I read so the gender’s switch never changed my perspective on certain characters. I don’t associate a behavior with a gender so I didn’t search for any clues to guess if a certain character was male or female either. By default, I vaguely thought of all the characters as female and when those characters were suddenly adressed as males, it didn’t change the way I perceived them. I like the idea in theory but the execution felt more like a gimmick than anything else.
This book is also composed of several chapters narrated by Breq when she was still a part of Justice of Toren. Because of the fact that she had a lot of bodies in those chapters, the narration jumps around between the various bodies of Justice of Toren. I thought the idea was quite interesting but in most cases, it just felt like an exercice in writing and at other times it made it harder to follow what was going on. Indeed when it occured during during certain scenes where characters were having important discussions, the jumping around made it a bit hard for me not to miss any important information.
I did appreciate the attempt at doing something different, the ideas were intriguing but their execution wasn’t always the best in my opinion and I sometimes thought Leckie privileged the form over the actual content of the book. Indeed, if you only look at the plot, it’s actually a pretty straightforward revenge story.
However, don’t take my critic too harshly, I still really enjoyed the book. I liked the structure and how it jumped between the two timelines. Breq’s character and how torned she was between her human emotions and her very AI logical thinking was fascinating to read about and I would recommend Ancillary Justice for that aspect. I will definitely read the next book and I’m intrigued to see if I still have the same issues with Ancillary Sword.
“If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference, Lieutenant Skaaiat had said, and I had agreed. I still agree.
The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference.”