This debut novel is making waves on the internet like none I’ve ever seen before. It’s difficult to find a single negative review of this title, and – if you ask me – Ann Leckie is doing that whole promotion thing rather well. I came across her on many of my favorite online hangouts, doing interviews, guest blogs, tweeting and giving away signed books. But she always has interesting things to say, so buying the book was a no-brainer.
Boring as it may seem, I join the legions of new Ann Leckie fans. What a remarkable, memorable, thought-provoking novel.
Published by: Orbit, October 2013
Paperback: 432 pages
Series: Imperial Radch #1
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it.
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.
Ancillary Justice is a fantastic book for many reasons, and these reasons change throughout the reading experience. I can only tell you how it was for me, although what I’ve seen on the internet so far, other people are intrigued by the same ideas.
The first thing that baffled and excited me was not the idea of an artificial intelligence whose bodies include one spaceship, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of bodies, and a handful of bodies who really enjoy singing together. That came later. No, the first thing was Ann Leckie’s use of pronouns. There are books that intentionally leave a character’s gender unclear by never assigning them any pronouns. Leckie goes a different route. In Justice of Toren‘s language, gender is not an issue so this first-person narrative uses almost exclusively female pronouns, regardless of the character’s gender. Even a “he” would be called “she”.
This is not just a gimmick! I was incredibly surprised by the need I felt to know who was male and who was female (or intersex, or transgender) although it really didn’t matter. Still, I caught myself trying to guess, by the few descriptions given of a person’s physique or mannerism, whether I was reading about a man or a woman. Most of the time, it’s impossible to guess. Some characters that I was sure were female turned out to be male – and, again, it wouldn’t have made any difference had their gender been swapped. The story works either way, but Ann Leckie has succeeded in one wonderful, amazing thing – making her readers think. Making us question our own expectations and prejudices and our desperate need to put things – and people – in boxes. I loved the book for that reason alone.
But fear not, there is more greatness to come. Apart from the pronouns and ambiguous gender of pretty much every character, the protagonist (whom I will call a “she” in this review, even though I really don’t know) is interesting enough to carry an entire story. So she is a spaceship and its troops. One of those troops, One Esk, has a fondness for music and collects songs over the centuries. Come to think of it, what would I do if I had 20 bodies? Singing together is pretty neat idea. Justice of Toren (the spaceship) is one mind, yet only one of her troops sings. That alone gives plenty of food for thought. How can, if the AI that is Justice of Toren and all her human bodies, only a few of these bodies have this particular hobby? Who, exactly, is this “I” who is telling us her story? Whatever the answer may be, just thinking about it is exciting.
Okay, that is two gigantic reasons why you should read this book. But – you guessed it – as the story progressed, and I got used to the pronouns, stopped thinking about who was male or female, still pondered Justice of Toren‘s idea of “I”, the plot took center stage. We follow two story lines, one in the present with the Breq (that’s what she now calls herself) on a deadly mission, one 20 years in the past, explaining what lead her to pursue said mission. Once everything that happened 20 years ago is told, it really kicks off. Ann Leckie didn’t take a single wrong step. Her pacing was fantastic, I read way too long into the night and found myself hoping it wouldn’t be over too soon.
Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form. Wishes and intentions, the same. Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another, some deed or course of action, however insignificant. Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean lass than nothing.
I thought about things to critique but there really isn’t much. The only thing I noticed was the somewhat excessive use of people, especially Breq, “raising one eyebrow”. That happened about five times in one chapter. But, come on! Compared to all the things this book does right, that is absolutely ridiculous. For completeness’ sake, I have now mentioned it and you are “warned”. The other thing I could think of is that the worldbuilding could have been cleaner, but I got an intense feeling that Leckie knows a lot more about the world then she lets us see in this first novel. And I knew everything I needed to know for the story to work.
My ebook had a little bonus after the book – an author interview. It included little information that isn’t already on the internet (Ann Leckie has done her share of promotion for the title, after all) but I was very pleased to read that this is book one of a loose trilogy. If this means more Breq and Seivarden (holy shit, I forgot to mention Seivarden but I totally love her and am still stunned by her character development and my keyboard is already in pain because I’ve lost all sense of punctuation and am just hammering on the keys but Seivarden is all sorts of awesome and you should read this book now)… yes. That.
The Good: A gripping story told with almost all-female pronouns, featuring a unique protagonist, incredibly interesting culture and character development. All the love!
The Bad: Does “I wanted there to be more of the book” count?
The Verdict: Seeing as this is one of the most talked-about books in the SF community right now, I don’t think I need to tell you to read it. But go read it anyway. I’m already jotting the title down for next year’s Hugo ballot.
RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection
I need to leave room open for the next instalment, after all…
- Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (skiffyandfanty.com)
- The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe: Ann Leckie (tor.com)
- A Skillfully Composed Space Opera In ‘Ancillary Justice’ (npr.org)
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (staffersbookreview.com)