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The Sum Of Who I Am
on 7 December 2015
Breq Ghaiad has a secret. She used to be part of a bigger entity, a ship (the space kind), called Justice of Toren. It gets more mind-boggling - she used to also be part of a hive mind AI that controlled the "corpse soldiers" on the ship, so-called because they were reanimated from the dead bodies of soldiers that the Radch empire (a dictatorial and all-powerful government on a mission to subjugate all surrounding planets) conquered or "annexed". As a battle starship, it means she is able to be anywhere and everywhere that each of her fellow ancillaries are. That gives her a certain omniscience in any action (at least when she recounts past events when she was still whole), that is really quite spectacular, and described in several instances and in colourful detail in the book.
Now she is just a remnant of the ship, and the lone soldier from the whole troop called One Esk. Out of that contingent, she was One Esk Nineteen, to be exact. Once the reader gets used to the mental gymnastics need to grasp the main character, the rest of the action flows quite smoothly and reels you in quite effortlessly. How she became just one remnant is something that unfolds, even as she encounters someone familiar, naked and face down in the snow, on an isolated planet far from the reaches of the Radchaai empire, and therefore considered uncivilised. That someone turns out to be Seivarden Vendaai, a lieutenant of the Justice (Breq the ship) a thousand years ago. In an unlikely partnership, the two embark on Breq's quest to confront the person who was responsible for her current state, and to resolve an action she had to carry out against her will twenty years ago.
Ann Leckie creates a complex world that bears just enough references to familiar structures like power and religion to make it all work, and the reader gets the sense that he is just getting a slice of a really big cake in this first of a promising trilogy. The 'genderless' universe (nonetheless by default female in terms of pronouns used) takes some getting used to, and potentially invites feminist readings. Questions about identity, selfhood and human nature, free will and mortality, are all problematised in this intelligent yet entertaining space opera.