Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.
Thoughts: Where to start with this one? Should I start by talking about the interesting way the full story is revealed through flashbacks until everything becomes clear, and more to the point, that this method actually works well? Should I talk about the themes of identity, given that the protagonist is, depending on which part of the story is taking place, either one connected segment of a vast multi-bodied AI that is primarily a starship, or a disconnected segment and the only remaining piece of that ship’s identity? Or the sheer amount of commentary on how different cultures handle gender and how tricky that can be to navigate somethings? Because all of these things, and more besides, are excellent reasons to read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.
The ideas that Leckie explores in this book are incredible, highly thought-provoking, and she presents them in ways that sink into your mind almost casually, without being heavy-handed or brow-beating the reader. This makes them all the more powerful; when complex issues are presented as things that people genuinely experience rather than as abstract or distant concepts, the effect hits closer to home and makes a person understand the humanity of the situation far better. Showing that language influences how we think and behave, Leckie demonstrates Breq’s discomfort not just with accidentally misgendering people when speaking to them, but also in recognising their gender at all. This is also a reflection of the different gender markers across various cultures; what one culture considers a feminine trait might be considered a more masculine thing elsewhere, or not a gendered trait at all in a third culture, and we don’t have to look to technologically-advanced space-faring empires to see that.
Which makes for a very interesting reading experience once you wrap your mind around the fact that Breq uses the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ as default when the gender of a person is unknown or inconsequential. And sometimes even when it is known: Seivarden was referred to as male by someone whose language does recognize gender, but Breq continues to refer to Seivarden by what we designate as female pronouns. It’s interesting to twist your brain in the right directions to ensure that you’ve got a decent picture of a character’s gender, and more importantly, to point out that sometimes it simply doesn’t matter whether a person is male or female in the slightest.
I was also intrigued by nods to my own personal assumptions about language and translation in books of fiction where the language of the characters is clearly not the language that I’m reading. Breq doesn’t speak English, obviously. And multiple languages are referenced through the story, all of which are conveyed to the reader as English. This leads to a few amusing scenes where the language of the characters makes reference to differentiations in words that there is no such differentiation for in English. The best example is when Breq speaks to a young child about music, asks if she knows any songs. The child is confused, and Breq realises that a mistake was made with word choice, that there must be another word to separate religious music from secular music. The child’s answer is priceless! “Oh! Songs!” No differentiation to the reader, because this language doesn’t differentiate. So it becomes almost a knock on the fourth wall, and a good example of the pitfalls of translation.
It’s also the kind of thing that few people would appreciate the humour of, I suspect, so your mileage may vary. I chuckled, at least, and I thought that was a very clever way of demonstrating culture and language difference.
Identity and cohesion are also strong themes running through the story here. Obviously, there’s Breq, who was part of the Justice of Toren AI with its many bodies, and now is the last remaining segment. But there’s also Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, also multi-bodied, and internally conflicted over a major issue, to the point where she splits off part of her personality and acts against herself in an oft-confusing battle of wills. This is about the only drawback to the novel; toward the end, with two different versions of Mianaai play off against each other. It was tough to keep it in my head which version was connected to which plot and which of them was working with or against Breq.
Then again, I suspect any one of the characters involved may have had similar issues of confusion, so I can’t find too much fault there. Bits may have been unclear about Mianaai, but everything else was conveyed with excellent clarity, and I knew exactly where I stood with each character in each situation.
Leckie has a real way with words, a knack for understanding complex and mind-twisting issues and for making them relatable and realistic. The story sucked me in, and this was one that I really didn’t want to stop reading, even when it was done. (Let’s just say that I’m very excited for the sequel’s release.) I’m disappointed that I ended up waiting so long to read Ancillary Justice. It wasn’t that I was wary of the book so much as I kept forgetting about having it.
But once read, it’s the kind of book that’s utterly unforgettable, and deeply impacting. It’s a book that will and should be remembered long after the series ends, destined to become a science fiction classic, and it’s a shining example of the amazing things that can happen when we step outside of our literary confirm zones and force ourselves to adapt to new concepts. Leckie sets new standards with Ancillary Justice, and is an important part of just how transformative this genre can truly be.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)