Ann Leckie “Ancillary Justice” (Orbit, 2013)
Ancillary Justice is the buzz book of the fall, if not the entire year. It seems that every time I check in at Goodreads, someone else has just started or finished the book. Once you dive into the book, it’s easy to see why there’s so much enthusiasm.
For a debut novel, Ancillary Justice is packed full of exciting ideas and concepts. Leckie creates an aggressive, expansionistic space empire that is thousands of years old. In many ways it feels like it could be a civilization in the Culture series. The AI are weaker than those of the Culture, and instead of using drones or other constructs, they utilize people as their extensions. Prisoners of war are gathered, altered, and have their consciousness overwritten by the ship AI. Our narrator is one of these “ancillaries”. That realization was a discomforting moment for me. As a narrator, Breq had been a very sympathetic character. To realize that there was a horrible act at the foundation of this character was disturbing, and put the whole Radch civilization in a very hostile light. If a character I liked so much could be so fundamentally evil, what did that say about the overall values of their civilization?
Breq is central to Leckie’s exploration of identity. Originally one of many ancillaries (the ship AI distribute their consciousness), Breq is now solitary. And while originally one of the ships of the Radch, Breq repeatedly reinforces the idea that she is not one of the Radch. And the name Radch itself is synonymous with civilized, so in this case identity is tied in with the concepts of civilization and colonization.
One of the most noticeable effects of Leckie’s exploration of gender is her usage of the word “she”. Apparently the Radch have no gender in the sense that we understand such a thing, and only use the feminine pronouns (“she”,” her”, etc). This seems to be more an effect geared towards the reader than towards any real practical use in the world of the novel. But what it does is to call the use of gender to the attention of the reader repeatedly, and to create no small amount of confusion regarding the gender of various characters in the book.
The book’s major flaw, and all books have one, is that it’s just not much fun. I didn’t feel the compulsion to finish the book. It wasn’t that I was disinterested, but rather than it felt too much like work. I’m not enough of a technically minded reader to dissect the cause of that, but it was clearly there. Reading Ancillary Justice at times felt like eating my spinach. I knew that it was good for me, but at times I longed for desert.
Despite that, Ancillary Justice is an enormously ambitious and successful novel. The fact that it is a debut is almost unbelievable. Debut or not, it may be the most bold novel that I have read in 2013. I recommend it highly.