Ancilliary Justice starts with its central character, who goes by the alias of Breq, on a wintery planet in search of a weapon with which she hopes to revenge events from 20 years previously. The story of those events is told in alternate chapters where we learn about a universe which is home to the imperial Radch, whose artificially intelligent starships control networks of telepathic soldiers, created from the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have been conquered and killed by these interstellar Romans.
Breq, it turns out, is one such avatar, One Esk Nineteen, last survivor of the troop carrier Justice of Toren. That sentence is indicative of two of the key features of author Ann Leckie's book. Firstly, that the ships control multiple avatars, all of whom are aware of what each other is/are thinking and seeing. Leckie handles the description of multiple viewpoints and rapidly changing perspective really skilfully. Secondly, this is very much a story of confused identity, as One Esk struggles to understand who and what she is. Crucially for the plot she and her like are not the only multiple entities in the book...... While the confusion created is intentional, it does occasionally step a little too far as, early on, Leckie rapidly introduces races, nations, factions characters, and interchangeable avatars at a pace which left this reader at least, somewhat disorientated.
As well as effectively describing the experiences of the multiple entities, Leckie gives the isolated One Esk a convincing, dispassionate voice, viewing the worlds around her in an unemotional, detached manner. While reading the book, one term which didn't enter my head was 'zombie', but in retrospect, that would be one way of looking at it. If all zombie stories are really about something else, Ancilliary Justice is a zombie story about identity and about what it really means to be human. Here it is One Esk, who, despite her origins, turns out to be the most human character.
In using SF to consider issues of humanity, Leckie joins a long tradition in which, of course, Philip K Dick is the dominant figure. He is not her only speculative literary antecedent. Early on, with its dominant society and intelligent spaceships, it felt a bit like reading about the Culture's dark, imperialist cousin, but by the end, with a seemingly impregnable empire, weakened by internal corruption, and faced with mysterious and faintly sinister aliens, it is closer to Stephen Donaldson's Gap series.
One interesting feature, which echoes both Iain M Banks and Ursula K Le Guin, is the ambiguous and shifting sexuality of the characters. This is society where language is subtly nuanced to express gender but where actual sexual identity seems difficult to determine. The default pronoun is female, but individuals are referred to as both him and her depending on circumstances. This usage gives the impression of a universe dominated by women, which asks questions of the extent to which language echoes, and/or reinforces the balance of power in society. If Leckie is saying anything about the effect of the dominant gender on society, it seems to be that it is of little impact. This is a society every bit as violent and competitive as a male-dominated one.
Finally, I loved the end. I didn't enter into this book in the knowledge that it is intended to be the first in a series, but it is, and that results in a culmination which is like a door being slammed in one's face, and a feeling of "Wow, what next".
In terms of sub genre this is closest to military SF, but it is definitely towards the intelligent end of the spectrum, a long way from ultra-violent, video game inspired, shoot-em-ups, and run of the mill Napoleonic-navy-in-space stories which seem to predominate these days.
This is not a piece of planet-shatteringly original writing, its influences are too obvious for that, but it is a step above the average, and as such, well worth reading.
Breq is unique but she wasn't always. Once Breq was a spaceship, Justice of Toren, comprising thousands of corpse soldiers, each with a shared identity, one of many such vessels spreading the influence of the Imperial Radch around the Galaxy. Breq is now alone, her vessel destroyed, and she has only one goal - to take vengeance on Anaander Mianaai, the lord of the Radch, who exists in an almost infinite number of forms. Breq is also our narrator and it is through these strange eyes, this unusual perspective, that we witness the events that brought Breq to her single-minded purpose.
Ancillary Justice is an unusual novel, reflecting the nature of its narrator. Breq has lived in one form or another for thousands of years but in many ways she is socially naive. This expresses itself in her language. She can communicate with most races but not necessarily correctly. She doesn't readily know gender pronouns; everyone is `she' unless Breq is corrected. This has the rather peculiar result that we are not sure whether we are being introduced to men or women and, as we work this out, there are surprises. However, for me, this reinforced how little gender can matter when a story's narrator has far more basic identity problems to solve. While this use of the `she' pronoun has been an issue for some readers, it mattered little to me and I enjoyed the rare excuses for humour that it provided to the novel.
The novel opens on an icy planet with a moment of inexplicable mercy by Breq. She finds Seivarden lying in the snow, close to death. Seivarden had once been one of Breq's human crew members, many hundreds of years before, and there is no reason for her to be there, let alone still alive. Despite having no feelings of warmth for Seivarden, Breq picks her up and together they continue Breq's hunt for vengeance. The story then moves back and forth over a 19-year period, the years that saw Justice of Toren destroyed and the Radch divided.
Above all else, Ancillary Justice is a novel about identity and justice, set against the background of the Radch which conquers worlds by `annexation', a sanitised word for an inhuman process that leaves most people dead or emptied of life, becoming these corpse soldiers who police the empire. We witness the process of annexation on one planet through Breq's prejudiced understanding - there are acts of terror - but Breq is in the process of becoming one and with that comes other emotions, including loyalty, affection, heroism, selflessness. Not that Breq would necessarily recognise these qualities in herself. But it isn't just Breq who changes - Seivarden, too, alters over the novel and her journey is, for me, the most memorable and warming aspect of the novel. There are also events that strike out of the blue, shocking the reader as well as Breq.
There has been a lot of excitement about Ancillary Justice and so I was very keen to read it. It is undoubtedly an ambitious and original debut SF novel by Anne Leckie. It is also, I believe, the start of a new Imperial Radch series, although it stands alone very well. I liked the characters a great deal, I felt for them in this cruel world they had become part of and I was very intrigued by Anaander Mianaai - a split personality taken to extremes. However, the pace and story left me disengaged. Its sudden movements backwards and forwards disconnected me from events and at times I found it hard going. I was glad I persevered as I enjoyed the second half much more than the first but the style is not one to suit every reader, including this one.
on 26 July 2015
To win any one of the major awards in writing in a year is a major achievement, to win five of them is a feat worthy of legend, and it sets up an anticipation for the story that puts an unfair strain on the words before you even start to read them.
Cheerfully I’ve never put much faith in awards in general, so I just read the book…
Ancillary Justice is the story of Breq, who was once the Justice of Toren, a massive warship in the service of the Empress that commanded thousands of troops and brought the will of the empire to all the corners of the galaxy, now a human like so many others. The story begins when Breq discovers the body of Seivarden, a person who should have been dead some years ago from Breq’s previous life as Justice, and makes the decision to look after them against all better logical instincts.
Progressing from two perspectives, that of the present day Breq making their way in the world and that of Justice of Toren in the past and the events that led up to Justice becoming Breq and Breq alone, and there’s nothing in the narrative that marks the difference to the two perspectives because as far as the narrator is concerned, Breq and Justice are the same creature.
This caused a particular problem for me, because while the nature of a self is a constant, time is not, and even a slight hint at the beginning of each chapter (in the manner of Game of Thrones with the name of the character whose chapter it is) would have been enough to prevent the disconnect. As it is, when you start a new chapter, you have to read till you find a landmark or character that’s unique to that section before you know which time period you’re in, sometimes immediate, oft times not.
Not a problem for many perhaps, but I really didn’t like that about it. The other interesting point is the way in which none of the characters are categorised as male or female, particularly when you consider that the languages used on the planet have both male and female inflections and traits, and that too makes for a read that is more challenging than I thought it would have been. I understand the idea that Justice would only ever have considered itself a ship, and so too would Breq as a result, but to have uncertainty over the gender of those that Breq meets in times future seems a little at odds. There’s various talk over the net of it being done to make you question how you see gender and sexuality, particularly as the names given don’t conform to normal naming conventions (western anyway), so there are moments where you do question when a character you thought was male is revealed as female.
An interesting exercise to be sure, but not something to be done in the middle of an active story perhaps...
The story doesn’t race along, but the suspense builds well, there’s a sense of foreboding about what was done in times past and what needs to be done in times future. Ancillary Justice stands and falls with the main character, Justice as a ship is cold, mechanical, analytical, capable of looking through hundreds of eyes at once, seeing things from all angles without passion or confusion. Breq sees only through one pair of eyes, eyes that have the hormonal taint of flesh to them, and it’s in the those hormones that the drama plays out, where Justice would only ever (and does) follow orders, Breq is faced with the psychological rebellion that something just feels wrong and is compelled to act upon it.
I haven’t said much about the book and the plot and to be honest, that’s because it’s not the most complex of plots till the last third, at which point all the intrigue starts pouring in, the truth about Justice is revealed and the book gets to go forwards from a single unified perspective. I understand why the two stories are interspersed, but they’d have been better doing them in chronological order, with the Justice section first and the Breq section afterwards, it wouldn’t have taken anything away from the story and it would have given the reader something to hold on to with Breq, rather than trying to veil everything till the big reveal from times past.
I did enjoy this book in the end, but there was a point at which I put it down to get on with other things, something that doesn’t normally happen with me at all. I normally devour books in a single sitting, but the combination of slow pacing and figuring out which time zone the chapter was in got to me and I needed a break from it.
By the time I’d finished the book, I was certainly into the story and interested in what would happen next, but it took me running out of other new reading material before I did go back to it.
Science fiction by it's very nature has many different concepts ideas and thoughts. After all when you have the universe at your keyboard why not? However much of it is derivative and repetitive. That's why I tend to read it in waves, because I'll OD on it and then lose interest for a while and then read other genres.
When I downloaded this I was just about at that stage. Probably if I had bought another sci-fi book I wouldn't have read it all the way through before I lost interest. However, Ann Leckie has done something special here. She has written a unique book in a tough genre to do that.
The four stars I gave this is possibly a little unfair when most of the book is a five star effort. This was for the start which was a little tough going as it deliberately left things confusing and hard to pick up. Even after reading the whole book I never really understood the sex of some of the characters. This is because it's written from the point of view of an ancillary to a destroyed space ship Justice of Toren who has no concept of the different types of humans. Everyone is 'she' and that means you have to think hard about the context.
Essentially the story is about the fracturing of an all seeing all knowing quasi-religious overseer who rules an empire of humans called Radchaai. It's an internal struggle where one part of the collective conscious is fighting the other part when both sides know what the other is thinking. It's mental chess. The ancillary of Justice of Toren, Breq, is after some revenge against losing itself because of the internal fight.
Once I fought my way past the first part of the book during which I almost put it aside I realised I was reading a book of rare excellence. Clever, well thought out, full of novel concepts and perhaps a bit of a dig at religion.
Very satisfying ending too.
Overall a book well worth a read if you want something refreshing and different.
on 26 January 2016
Fell hook line and sinker for the hype surrounding this "award-winning" novel. Lost the will to live after approximately 100 pages, during which I found myself back tracking several pages, several times, to attempt to follow the plot, and gave up. When you struggle to understand the story due to exhausting prose it's time to close the cover. So glad I didn't buy the sequels prior to reading this.
on 7 April 2015
Sci-fi has long been dominated by male writers and, a little tired of incredibly attractive up-for-it females populating the fiction, I was hopeful when I read the reviews for Ancillary Justice. The premise, off-shoot machine intelligence becomes more human, was an interesting concept and the idea of sentient ships tapped into the void left by Banks.
As it was to be a Christmas read (therefore uninterrupted by thoughts of work), I really looked forward to it but found it a struggle from the beginning. At first, I put it down to reading on a kindle, but reluctantly accepted that it was just the book.
Good bits: The gender confusion was interesting and gave me a bit of a shock when I realised just how often I assume major players in books (sci-fi books?) are male. I would have liked to have seen this played with more though. Liked the depict ions of places and the kind of dark side of the Culture I suppose; not a benevolently expanding organism, but something more menacing.
Bad bits: It was just so dull. I kept waiting for something to happen, but there was just page of discussion. No humour, no real character development. Not even any real action is surely a pre-requisite of any book set in space. I get that the protagonist was meant to be machine-veering-toward-human, but I was just left cold. The whole book had a greyness about it that I had to slog my way through.
I’m tempted by the sequels, just to see if they get any better, but I’m not sure I can.
on 5 November 2013
I finished this book and did something I haven't done for years: I started over at the beginning. Several weeks later, I'm still thinking about it.
Leckie knows exactly what she is doing with her ideas and uses them to enrich the structure of the prose as well as the story. Particularly interesting is the AI's split identity, which leads to some beautiful city-wide scenes handled with technical mastery. However, it's the characters that drove me to the second readthrough. Leckie vividly paints the central cast through the PoV of the central character, Esk, a strong and matter-of-fact voice with glaring emotional holes that become slowly obvious through her actions and through what she does not report. The settings are vibrant, the emotional arcs are like a punch to the gut, and the structure so well done that I kept intending to do chores but was unable to put the book down after the end of each chapter.
The only indication this is a first novel is a couple of pacing hiccups in the climax, but for me that would merely have knocked this book down from six stars. I have no hesitation in giving it five. Even though the story was satisfying on its own I am eagerly awaiting a sequel.
on 27 May 2014
I was pleased to get this book at Amazon's recommendation, because it arrived when I came down with a bad cold, so I could lie in bed reading it. Had I not been sick, I don't think I would have bothered to finish it.
I like the idea of a human fragment of an AI, but it is under-used here. Remember the "look behind you" scene in 2010? "There was no hint of genitals … a chilling indication of how far David Bowman had left his human heritage behind." Breq's trouble with gender pronouns should have led to a plot crux or at least some humor, but instead it just confused me a little, and made me indifferent to who was in bed with whom. Multiple elements of a personality were better handled in the Vernor Vinge Fire Upon the Deep novels.
The ice planet was much better done in Peter Hamilton's magnificent Commonwealth Saga.
The Radch empire and its annexations reminds one a little bit of a bad empire in a Culture novel, but a whole lot less is going on, and the tech level of the Radch is surprisingly low. The fancy gun is in the shade of Iain M Banks's Lazy Gun or Philip K Dick's Zap Gun.
In recent SF, I was much more excited by Hannu Rajaniemi's Quantum Thief, and much more enjoyably perplexed by Toh EnJoe's Self Reference ENGINE. I continue to find China Miéville original.
What did I like in Ancillary Justice? The emerging humanity of Breq was nice. I always like AI heroes. The single thread of flashbacks was well handled. The musical angle was good. I am not going to keep my eye out for sequels though.
on 4 April 2016
Interesting concepts, and fairly original premise, if quite difficult to read and very slow to get off the ground. The use of 'she' pronoun for everyone, even though explained early on, is unhelpful in aiding the reader picture scenes and characters, and takes a lot of getting used to. Substantial focus on tea drinking and religious ceremony / ornamentation, especially early on, will bore certain readers, especially when combined with the writer's (bad) habit of trying to be clever by explaining concepts after (sometimes long after) inferring knowledge of those concepts in speech and internal thought processes - leaves one constantly jumping back and forth in the book.
on 1 February 2015
Some Spoilers, so please be aware.
Perhaps this will disappoint, but Ancillary Justice frustrated me. It’s a very, very good book, and definitely one of the best science-fiction books of 2014. No question of that – I very much enjoyed it. The themes which run though it are starkly human – vengeance, love, redemption, recovery – drive many great books. The concepts which underpin the setting are fresh, imaginative, clever and richly themed. The setting itself, intricate and powerful, hints at huge scope and an operatic scale for the stories to be told within, and at times the level of detail is enthralling (most often in the context of the military’s structure). The lead character, Breq (or Justice of Toren One Esk 19 as she is much later on), is an ancillary which, in itself, is an intriguing take on POV (although not necessarily completely original). Ancillaries themselves are a stark, ingenious way to characterise the Radch, and to underpin the way in which the story develops. The attempt at a single gender pronoun, at least in part to add colour to the way in which the Radch culture differs so much from our own, was both brave and clever. Reports suggest Leckie refused to change that when asked.
Yet, to me, Ancillary Justice fails to deliver on the promise of a truly great novel. The setting, which that detail hints at, is never fully rendered. There are times when I found it difficult to visualise the places her story unfolded in – they were so often sketched, skirted over, rather than colourfully painted (perhaps Breq for obvious reasons just doesn’t appreciate the details). The story seemed to take a seat behind Leckie’s literary style, and sometimes the pace flagged, especially in the early stages.
Breq as a lead character was always going to be tricky and I was never convinced by the reasons for her driving desire to take on the Lord of the Radch. Moving from her POV as Justice of Toren, and then as the various ancillaries which are commanded by Justice of Toren, is actually seamless. I never experienced a difficulty in picking that up and the concept is something special. Yet, from a pure ‘character/desire’ perspective, I found her relationship with the character who is the catalyst for the driving force of the story itself not deep enough to spark that desire. We know only that the character concerned was one of her ‘favourites’. That character herself, the reason Breq takes on the mission she does, does not exhibit the sort of emotional attachment to the place she is stationed that we would expect, given how events unfold later (and the way the Radchaai are as a society). The way Breq sees it, tapped into the emotions of that character as she is, the character is almost detached and apathetic towards the whole place.
The gender pronoun issue, trumpeted as one of the really insightful aspects of the novel, with comparisons made to Ursula Le Guin, frequently had the effect of dropping me out of the story. Some characters are clearly male, some clearly female, but we are not told about all of them. Why are we told about any of them? If gender is removed as a focal point for characterisation, thus collapsing our assumptions and giving us a clean slate for desires and driving forces, why tell us about any at all? It leaves us wanting to search out the prose to see if we’ve missing key point based on gender. If one character has a physical relationship with another, fine. We still don’t need to know gender.
Story, yes, the most important part – this is the first book in a trilogy, so the story is set to unfold, but it the fulcrum of Breq’s self-imposed mission feels like it is missing so much. There’s a twenty-year gap between the events on Ors and the events which take place with Seivarden. We have the vaguest hints at what Breq does in those years, but not enough to justify her drive over that time and set it out. Also, I found it hard to identify with Breq – although she displays very human desires (perhaps her old self re-asserting itself in her subconscious), her internalised thoughts are often quite bland – I found myself fighting to root for her. I don’t agree with some reviews suggestive of deus ex machina, but I do feel a mite confused by Seivarden – that his (yes, it’s a he) place in the book seems a little convenient. In some ways, it’s a classic B-story which arcs around behind the A-story and intersects at the critical moment, but Seivarden has so little to do that it doesn’t even really fulfil the category of B-story. It’s almost as if he was there to (a) explain the gender pronoun thing a little better, and (b) for Breq to “save the cat” and give us something to root for. Seivarden seems too ambiguous and empty a character to justify Breq’s actions later on.
Pace is slow the begin with – far too slow and there is too much insightful dialogue in relation to the action which actually moves the plot forward. This is what I mean by Leckie’s literary style. There were palpable lapses in tension in the early stages of the book, although plenty of what could be said to be, still underplayed, conflict (between Awn and the various factions on Ors, as well as between the factions themselves).
All this said, Ancillary Justice demonstrates an author who is likely to write something truly great, with a prodigious imagination, and is well-worth reading – there are certainly few books released in 2014 which stand up to the scope, imagination and operatic scale of Ancillary Justice.