Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s debut, literally made a killing in 2014, simultaneously winning Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards. Leckie’s debut was long in coming – first drafts of what would later become Ancillary Justice were sketched back in 2002, and the book was written over a period of six years. The novel was worth the wait (even if nobody knew that they were waiting for something ;)) – Ancillary Justice comes across as a finished and polished work of art.
Superficially, it’s a story of Breq – a rather enigmatic and slightly detached individual, whose gender remains unknown, or rather unimportant, throughout the length of the story. And here’s what all and sundry’s already heard about Ancillary Justice: it uses only female pronouns in description of people. Everybody in Radch’s world is referred to as ‘she’ – because the Empire as a whole doesn’t consider sexes or genders as significant or consequential in any aspect other than being some strange barbarian quirks, hastily shoved into the box tagged ‘cultural diversity’. But a bit more on this later.
Radch is a galactic empire with – as all empires – an expansionist worldview. “Conquer, or be divided” should be its motto. As an epitome of a good SF empire, Radch has its own immortal tyrant, Anaander Mianaai. Or, to be more precise, lots and lots of Anaanders Mianaai, being one mind in literally hundreds or even thousands of bodies spread throughout the galaxy.
The idea of single but very complex minds operating via hundreds of bodies has truly come to life in the Radch empire. It permeates its culture, beliefs, assumptions, as well as everyday technical workings. Anaander Mianaai herself is a transhumanist wet dream come true, but consciousness has been given to planet administrations and ships as well. Not any ships, mind you, but the military vessels, the lifeblood of the empire: justices, mercies and swords. Radch’s almost uncontested conquest of the galaxy was the result of implementing this transhumanist idea – the conquered, especially those not happy with their new allegiance, were turned into ‘body-slaves’: hibernated spare parts for the warships’ AIs.
We learn all this – and much more – through the story of Breq. S/he has a secret. A very dangerous, very dirty secret which is somehow linked to a mysterious disappearance of a warship Justice of Toren nineteen years prior. Breq’s story is revealed to the readers in two separate planes: the present, in which s/he finds herself on an icy and forbidding planet, far away from the empire’s centre, and past – in which she is One Esk Nineteen, one of the many, many corpse soldiers of Justice of Toren, an ‘ancillary’ sharing the ship’s AI and identity.
The story unfolds slowly, one step at a time. Evocative descriptions of diverse social beliefs and behaviors are key to the readers’ slow immersion in an alien, intriguing culture. The chapters retelling the past are interspersed with the ones set in the present. We gradually learn who Breq is, and at the same time we start to understand who s/he exactly was, and what made her/him this way. The readers are relentlessly and insidiously drawn into the thick of it, and even if the main plot seems rather predictable, it is nonetheless compelling – and ultimately rewarding. The novel works so well because its two halves – traditional hard SF, with its interplanetary empires, enormous spaceships, AI and aliens, and thriller/mystery novel, with “whodunit”, slow, down-to-earth tracking of events, and revenge planned and executed in cold blood – are joined together almost seamlessly.
Is it an original novel? Mostly, no. It’s main tropes have been introduced long before by many other authors – Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness being one of the most obvious inspirations. There are faint echoes of Philip K. Dick in the way Leckie asks questions about the constituents of humanity, there are also many, many other inspirations in the rich field of space wars, the future of humankind and interstellar colonization. Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were the first of the author’s predecessors who came to my mind when reading Ancillary Justice. It’s all already there. Leckie, however, brings those tropes together in a quite unique fashion through Breq’s dispassionate, but at the same time highly emotional, narrative. Add into the mix a very interesting, intricate culture of the galactic empire, a few deadly political intrigues, a whiff of adventure, and, last but not least, a satisfying dollop of psychologically probable character evolution. All depicted with care and attention to detail, and with a surety rarely seen in debuts.
I enjoyed Ancillary Justice very much. It’s written in a neat, controlled language, and has some refreshing ideas, big and small. The female pronouns weren’t much of a nuisance and I interpreted them as a rather successful way of showing the readers the foreignness of Radch’s society and not as a wicked feminist plot to rule the world. This is also a vehicle for showing the social alienation of Breq, who doesn’t know, and doesn’t really care about gender. I liked the pace of the story, the intermingling of past and present, and even if the climax of the main plot has been made obvious throughout the tale, it still was logical and satisfactory.
I read the second installment in the series, Ancillary Sword, as soon as it was available. And it was… ok. It’s a good book, no doubt about it – Leckie’s writing is as strong as in Ancillary Justice. But the mystery is gone, along with the thoughtful interweaving of time; worldbuilding is almost finished, and what ultimately remains starts resembling many other generic space operas. The presence of alien races is pronounced more strongly, which is a plus, since Leckie has some interesting ideas in this area. But all in all, the second installment doesn’t reach the level of the first book – though let’s add in its defense that the bar was set really high.
I will definitely come back to the Radch Empire – the third book, called Ancillary Mercy, is scheduled for release in October 2015. And look at the covers – the three of them neatly forming a full picture 🙂
Score: I 9/10, II 7/10