RogerBW's Blog

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie 08 February 2014

This first novel marks Leckie as someone to watch. At some point in (one assumes) the distant future, a polity known as the Radch has absorbed most other human civilisations by virtue of vastly superior military technology. The protagonist, known as Breq, used to be part of one of their warship AIs -- an "ancillary", a human prisoner with mind overwritten used as a drone -- but is now operating solo, with a specific mission in mind.

To go into much detail would be to give away the plot, and I think it's worth discovering for oneself. However, there's a certain amount of narrative exploration of both a backwater world outside the Radch and one of its major space stations. There's also a surprising amount of religion, given how anti-religious many SF authors tend to be; the Radch uses the Roman model of including conquered cultures' gods in its own pantheon, as long as their priests are willing to accept their conquerers' gods as pre-emiment. Substantial descriptive passages deal with temple visits and protocols.

This is not at all hard SF; lots of technological details are skated over. This is mostly a story about people, and indeed what is a "human" (Breq is of the confirmed opinion that she is not). Some people regard this as a space opera book, but it's not all whiz-bang space battles either; most of what's going on happens on a small personal scale, and the narration is first-person. This does allow for multiple viewpoints in early passages, since a ship AI can run many drones at once; for me this is some of the most evocative writing.

Leckie uses an interesting grammatical trick: the Radchaai don't regard gender as significant (their medical tech makes it irrelevant to reproduction), and nor does their language. When she's thinking or speaking in her native language, Breq refers to everyone as "she". It's only when forced to speak in other languages that Breq tries to work out gender cues so as to establish a proper form of address, and often gets it wrong. To Breq, it really doesn't matter. Some people are regarding this as a feminist statement; I think it's more person-ist, regarding people's personalities as more important than their wibbly bits. It's not being used (as Le Guin might) to hammer home an Author's Message; it's just the way these people are.

Some of the early passages are a bit slow, especially in the first flashback scenes, but things pick up rapidly, and while there are more barbed conversations than battles there's certainly no lack of interest.

The theme that really is harped on here is loss: of one's friends, of power, of one's society, of one's memories and self.

The ending is more setup for the two further volumes Leckie plans to write than a true ending, but it is at least a conclusion to the things that have been happening so far: a big secret is out, and Breq will be doing different things in the next book.

In summary: may be a bit slow for some readers, but highly recommended if you don't insist on constant action.

Recommended by Ashley R Pollard.

Addendum: winner of the 2014 Hugo award for Best Novel.

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See also:
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

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