Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice

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.

ancillary justiceANCILLARY JUSTICE
by Ann Leckie

Published by: Orbit, October 2013
ISBN: 0356502406
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.

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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.

ancillary justice cover

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…

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Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

It is shocking that it took me well into my twenties to finally pick up and read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only do I consider it required reading for anyone who calls him or herself a fan of SF literature, but it also features on pretty much every single reading list I’ve ever followed. I now see why and feel quite smug about finally being in the club of Atwood-readers. I intend to stay.

handmaids taleTHE HANDMAID’S TALE
by Margaret Atwood

Published by: Vintage Digital, 2012 (1985)
ISBN: 9781446485477
ebook: 336 pages
Standalone

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now…everything has changed.

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How does one go about reviewing a book that is not only considered one of the best ever written but was published a full year before one’s own birth? I suppose one doesn’t. Then again, what I do here in my little bloggeress haven is really only putting my impressions into writing, not fully reviewing books (I believe that’s only possible with spoilers and I avoid them so you guys can enjoy the books I recommend in full). It took  me a long time to finally read Margaret Atwood’s probably  most well-known book and I’m happy to say that, again, the WWE Women of Genre Fiction Challenge gave me that last push.

The story throws us into a world not too far in the future where women are separated into castes with specific purposes. There are Wives, whose job is fairly obvious – they are married to important men – there are Marthas and, because humanity has a lot of trouble procreating, there are the Handmaids. Offred, the first person narrator, is one such Handmaid and as such is given to a childless family in order to give them a baby. I won’t go into detail of how this is done but you will get to see the “ceremony” in the book.

Margaret Atwood leaves it, I believe intentionally, vague for a long time what happened in the past that has led to such a sinister society. We get only glimpses of how the system works but slowly, the narrator fills in the blanks to create a full picture of horror. Offred, whose real name we never find out (she is just that, the Handmaid “of Fred”), supplies us with flashbacks of her time Before. What impressed me the most is probably how the author managed to make me feel so strongly for the character, almost missing her past with her, even though all we get are little snippets of that happy family life.

The narrative has a beautiful flow to it and certain sentences completely hit home. They don’t even have to be about important dramatic issues, they just happen to be a string of words, tied together in a way that is both poetic and meaningful. These sentences come up at random and without warning, they struck a chord with me on so many levels that I have to be impressed, if not by the plot or characters, at least by Margaret Atwood’s prose. That said, both the plot and the characters were also brilliant.

copyright @ Erin McGuire

copyright @ Erin McGuire

Many people I’ve talked to find Offred too passive. She is integrated into this new society and just tries to do her job and stay alive, dreaming about what her husband and her child might be doing – if they’re still alive, that is. There is an underground movement and Offred is aware of it, yet she never joins them. Personally, I completely understood her. Fear makes you numb, it keeps you even from trying to break out of a life you loathe with all your heart. The will to survive eclipses any hope for a better society you may have. So Offred is happy about the small victories she is allowed in her structured, anonymous life. Until the Commander, the man who is supposed to plant a baby inside of her (there’s nothing romantic or sexually arousing about it, trust me) invites her to visit his room alone…

This book may be older than I am but, oh God, has it impressed me. It is clearly as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Apart from telling a gripping story of one woman’s struggle to survive and keep her sanity, it deals with issues that, in our society, haven’t been resolved. It is about gender and sexuality, about equality (not just of men and women but of religion as well). It never whacks you over the head with a hammer, just gives you enough to make you think for yourself. That is what a great dystopia is supposed to do. Hold a mirror up to current society and say: Look, if we keep going this way, we may end up like this.

There are parts of the book that felt a bit long or drawn-out, but in the end, I wouldn’t change anything about it. People have expressed different opinions about the ending. I loved it. It doesn’t really give us an answer or a resolution to Offred’s story, but it gives us something better. Hope.

THE GOOD: Fantastic writing, characters and a world that are fully fleshed out, that terrify and make you think. All in just a few pages.
THE BAD: One slow part just around the middle. If you got that far, however, you will no doubt push through it.
THE VERDICT: With the current craze of YA dystopian novels, it is refreshing to remember what a dystopia is all about. Margaret Atwood is a magnificent writer who only whet my appetite with this little novel. That teaches me: The classics, even the recent classics, are worth picking up when fed up with what’s currently published. Most highly recommended!

RATING: 8,5/10  Truly excellent

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