Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was one of the most talked-about books of my social circle over the last several months, and is nominated for a Best Novel Hugo. I think it’s not quite as amazing as all the discussion led me to expect, but it’s still damn good. Unless Mira Grant’s Parasite is far better than I expect (not that I have anything against Grant, but I haven’t heard anything about Parasite—well, anything at all, actually, which necessarily includes “anything that would suggest it’s as interesting as Ancillary Justice“), it’s at the top of my Hugo ballot.
The narrator of the novel, who goes by Breq, used to be a two-thousand-year-old spaceship called Justice of Toren which served in the Radch Empire. More specifically, she used to be an AI which controlled the spaceship as well as thousands of ancillaries—human bodies whose minds were wiped so that they could be controlled by the AI, like limbs. But now only a single ancillary body remains.
About the first half of the novel proceeds in two strands: retrospective narration of Justice of Toren‘s experiences twenty years ago, and a present-day strand in which Breq is on a quest for vengeance against the deliciously-named Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch Empire, who uses the same technology behind ancillaries to exist across thousands of bodies. So right away this is catnip for me: I love well-executed variations on narration, and there’s two things here, one new-to-me and one not but still great. First, the retrospective narration is first-person singular (“I”) but from many different physical perspectives. It starts out focused on One Esk, a twenty-ancillary unit stationed on a planet that the Radch Empire has recently annexed (read: violently conquered), and later broadens to include the awareness of Justice of Toren‘s ship functions (which are mostly background noise when the story is focused on the planet). At all points, the different perspectives and events experienced and related by the “I” are handled deftly. (And in particularly tense moments, the geographically-dispersed narration gives a kind of cinematic effect of quick-cutting between scenes, which is cool.) Second, in all her manifestations, Justice of Toren/One Esk/Breq is a profoundly unreliable narrator: but in ways completely separate from her multiplicity of physical inputs, which just delights me.
This is another book I read in tiny fragments at first, which did it no favors, to the point where I delayed writing this up until I could claw out some chunks of time to re-read it properly. And it works better that way, because what I thought at first was an overly-slow start turns out to be important for character development. I admit that I’d like there to have been more story in the present-day plot than there was; it is apparently a trilogy, and the book ends as a natural break point but with a tantalizing/frustrating promise of “this is just the beginning.”
This is a book very concerned with identity, as should be obvious from what I said already, and also with class. I haven’t seen much discussion of it along the latter lines; if anyone has links, please leave them in comments, because I know my thinking about class issues is pretty 101 and I’d love a more nuanced and informed analysis. It is not, much, a book concerned with gender, though that’s the other thing everyone knows about it: (a) it’s a book about an individual who used to be a spaceship and (b) it uses female pronouns for everyone, regardless of what, if any, gender they self-identify as.
This is only partly successful, but is also not that big a part of the book. In-text, we’re told that Radchaai society doesn’t have gender and therefore doesn’t mark it linguistically, and that Breq is unable to identify individuals’ gender in other societies. It’s implied that in translation, Radchaai ungendered pronouns are rendered “she.” Put that way, the problem with this is immediately obvious: “she” is not an ungendered pronoun. Sure, it’s better than Brust translating Paarfi’s ungendered forms of address into the masculine, and frankly I found it very relaxing to have the default be female instead of male [*]; but it’s quite true that in challenging the male default, the book’s pronouns then fall headfirst into reinforcing the binary gender default. I think it would have made more sense for the book to use an ungendered pronoun for Radchaai and an arbitrary gendered pronoun (“she”) for others. But, because Breq doesn’t care about gender, and because Radchaai society doesn’t either, the pronoun thing is a pretty small part of the book: Breq has a few musings about navigating other cultures politely, but that’s about it.
[*] Also relaxing is that the Raadchi are brown-skinned (indeed, a fairly dark brown is apparently the fashion).
There’s lots of stuff I haven’t even mentioned yet—aliens, there are aliens that are offstage in this book but very significant and teased to appear in the next; very tantalizing hints about Breq’s time before the present-day strand picks up (I don’t know if those are short stories, backstory to be expounded upon later, or just things to make the universe feel convincingly large, but any way I love them); and the relationship between Breq and her officers and former officers, including Seivarden Vendaai, who Breq almost literally stumbles across at the start of the present-day strand and rescues from hypothermia. (Yes, coincidence. I’ll allow it for the thematic resonances.) Leckie is juggling a lot of balls, and it’s tough to resolve anything on this scale, but as soon as I finished this I pre-ordered the sequel, which is out in October.
In short: not the best thing since sliced bread, but damn good. Read it.
(By the way, the series name comes from the header image at the author’s website.)
A spoiler post follows.