Here is the funny thing about Ancillary Justice: after spending months reading the Hyperion series, it was so incredibly refreshing to have a light, breezy, four hundred page book to read through in a few weeks. I’m really happy to have the sequel already lined up on Rachael’s Kindle (that will be a new experience in itself, since I’ve never made use of an e-reader before), because I feel like I’ve spent such a brief time in this fictional world.
So let’s go ahead and deal with the important stuff of what makes this book worth reading. It has a lean cast of characters, which makes for very focused portraits of the personalities that are at play here (perhaps the nature of Leckie’s narrator helps here, since we never leave her perspective; though first person narrations have some inherent limitations and narrative challenges, I always feel like when they’re pulled off successfully they help present a really tight plot), the protagonist, Breq, has an intriguing personality and character arc, and the antagonist, Anaander Mianaai, is an extremely complex character who provides an expression of internal conflict that is wholly unique and surprising. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how it’s supposed to work.
Also, it won the Hugo in 2014, so a lot of people who know a lot about good science fiction endorse it.
To give a basic idea of the premise, the setup is this: Breq is the last surviving ancillary body of the ship Justice of Toren, which was destroyed twenty years prior to the story’s beginning. Her mind is part of Justice of Toren‘s AI, and prior to its destruction, her identity exists simultaneously within the ship and all of its ancillaries (all of the parts are networked to create a single cohesive identity that fragments into more or less identical individuals when communications go down). Chapters alternate between Breq describing her journey to reach a palace in the Radchaai (the empire which Justice of Toren served for two thousand years before its destruction) where she can obtain an audience with Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai and flashbacks to the events leading up to Justice of Toren‘s destruction.
It’s the concept of the networked mind that’s really most interesting. Breq spends half of the book dealing with the fact that she is the only piece of herself that survived her destruction, and though she clearly has an individual personality, she seems to struggle with the idea that she should continue to exist. She feels diminished in a single body. Contrast Breq’s predicament with Anaander Mianaai, who has ruled the Radch for millennia through the use of cloned bodies that are networked to form a cohesive identity the same way ships and their ancillaries are. Without getting too much into plot details, Mianaai is in a strange position where she’s literally at odds with herself because of the nature of her networked mind and the fact that she can disconnect individual bodies by disrupting communications. The disruption in information and identity that comes from these disconnections is really interesting, as each body is fully autonomous and immediately begins developing into different iterations of the same person once their experience diverges.
Besides the interesting sci-fi concept that anchors the book, the other really notable thing that the book does is play with linguistic gendering. The Radchaai language doesn’t mark gender, and in order to convey this uniformity, Leckie refers to all characters in the book with feminine pronouns (Breq, as an AI created by the Radchaai, thinks in Radchaai, and also struggles with gender identification; she’s constantly perplexed by the gender of non-Radchaai humans because she’s unfamiliar with their social markers that indicate male, female, or something else; her fumbling with gender in other languages is a great quirk that adds some excellent flavor to her character). We’re made explicitly aware of only one character’s gender (Seivarden, a former Radchaai officer whom Breq finds and rehabilitates on her way to see Anaander Mianaai, is male), and the remainder of the cast is left ambiguous. Though it’s slightly jarring at first, the concept becomes easy enough to follow, and it creates an atmosphere where all of the characters’ genders become irrelevant to the story so that their traits don’t get mapped onto any kind of preconceived notion of gender norms.
All in all, Ancillary Justice is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and it really does feel extremely different from other sci-fi that I’ve read.