Review: “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

Wow. Just….Wow. Earlier this week I posted my review of Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. In that review, I said it was the best book I’d read in a while. If I had chosen differently when prioritizing my shortlist of upcoming books to read, I might have spoken differently. Or maybe not. I’m not really good at looking at two incredibly excellent pieces of work and saying one is better. Sometimes its easy. Sometimes its not. This time its nearly impossible. I’ve already expounded on the virtues of The Long Earth, if you want to see that go click on the title in that first sentence. It’ll take you right there. Here, I will attempt to make you understand just how brilliant Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice (*****) is. All I can say is that I cannot wait for the next book in her trilogy to come out….

On a remote and frozen planet far beyond the boundaries of the Radchaai Empire, the lone figure calling herself Breq draws nearer the completion of a quest for vengeance twenty years in the making. Twenty years earlier the Justice of Toren was a mighty troop carrier, one of the largest ships in the Radchaai navy. Her AI controlled and monitored the actions of the entire ship as well as the host of “ancillaries” that serve her human officers as aids, servants or soldiers as the occasion demands. Spread across the stars, the Radchaai Empire has been built on the metaphorical backs of ships like Justice Of Toren and the ancillaries they command. Annex a system, integrate them into the Empire, grant citizenship to those deemed worthy (i.e. “pure” humans), then seize a portion of the population to be converted into ancillaries–corpse soldiers, as they are referred to by resentful annexees. Suitable human bodies are placed into cryostorage, ready to be revived, given implants and slaved to their ship’s AI as readily expendable troops, flawlessly-coordinated and for all intents and purposes an extension of the ship. Twenty years ago, Justice Of Toren was one such ship with millenia of service behind her, orbiting a newly-annexed world notable only for being the final addition to the Empire, until an unthinkable betrayal tore it all away. Now Justice Of Toren lives on only as a fragment of herself, the ancillary One-Esk Nineteen, now known as Breq. She does not understand why everything she once was has been stripped away, not completely, but she does know who is responsible–Anaander Mianaai, the immortal Empress of the Radch. She must pay. But how does one kill an enemy that occupies a thousand bodies spread across the stars? And why does Breq keep risking her life and her mission to help Seivarden Vendaai, an officer who served on her a millenia ago? She herself cannot answer that question, not even to her own satisfaction. She only knows that her course is set. There’s no turning back now, not when she is so close to her goal. May the cast fall as it will….

In conception alone, this is probably the single most original piece of science fiction I have ever had the intense pleasure of reading. Leckie creates a meticulously-imagined world to explore, filled with fascinating characters that walk the line between the familiar and the completely alien, all conveyed with a sparsely elegant prose that somehow manages to put you inside the mind of an interstellar warship. This was an incredibly ambitious novel, and I was completely blown away by how well executed it was. If I hadn’t visited the author’s website myself (it’s here, by the way, in case you’re interested) I would in no way believe that this was her first novel. I would even go so far as to say that it is dang near perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing about the book itself, save one sentence I found that got mangled in restructuring–probably fixed in the release version, since I’m reading an ARC. I do think the book would benefit from an author’s note at the beginning regarding one artistic choice she made, but I’ll discuss that in a minute.

It’s no secret that writing in first-person can be incredibly difficult; many times you are faced with the impossible choice of either breaking form to convey vital information about goings-on somewhere other than where your POV character happens to be, or leaving said information untouched. The Hunger Games ran into this a few times, I thought, and the films are really benefitting from their ability to show President Snow discussing why things happen the way they do. In this book, however, the author manages to pull an end-run around the issue. In the present, there’s no need to cut away–Breq is alone, or Seivarden is with her. Either way, everything important happening centers on her. In her flashbacks explaining how she came to be in her position, she’s an AI with eyes everywhere there’s an ancillary, ship’s camera or sensor. This allows the author to write in first person omniscient for those sequences, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done before. We the reader can sometimes be mystified by a secondary character, can be left wondering why they said or did something, but this is okay because we’re seeing them through Breq’s eyes, and she is just as mystified as we are! This is especially confusing during the pivotal moment in Breq’s flashbacks where everything hits the fan and we learn just what happened, again because she doesn’t completely understand it herself. It is very apparent, however, that Leckie understands these things, and in time all will be revealed. This book isn’t actually out yet, it releases October 1st of this year from Orbit press. I have no idea how wide their reach is, so I don’t know whether you’ll have to go on Amazon to get it (here’s a link!) or if you’ll be able to pick it up at your favorite bookstore. However, I cannot emphasize enough how much you need to read this!

My one suggestion: an author’s note regarding the use of gender language throughout the book. The Radchaai language has no gender, so it’s not part of Breq’s “native thinking” to use gender-specific terms in her own head. All well and good, kudos for consistency, but I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out if it was a typo that Seivarden was referred to as “she” despite having been said to be male. (Ships are female, so everyone is “she.”) It works, it’s just a little confusing at the start. Certain characters, I still have no idea what their gender was. That’s ok, just….confusing. Most of the cast is female in my head, probably more than should be. (UPDATE: This is exactly what I was talking about. This or something like it should have been in the front of the book.)

Thanks and disclaimers: I received an advance reading copy (ARC) of this book for free through the ARCycling program with the understanding that I would review it. Basically, the idea is that people who get free copies of these books in order to generate reviews and publicity will pass their copies along to other bloggers (or anyone else who fit the profile–see their site for details) in order to better serve this purpose and spread the word. Its a great program, and I owe them (and the donator, of course!) thanks for getting this into my hands. I had seen ads for it, and thought it would be an interesting read, but it wasn’t a very high priority until I saw it on the list of offerings. I don’t know for sure who donated this one, but I seem to remember seeing The Little Red Reviewer credited when I requested it. (LRR, if you end up reading this, please confirm or deny so I can properly credit you? Awesome.) And by the way, if you like sci-fi/fantasy and aren’t following her, you should totally do that. My review is in no way influenced by the fact that I was given a free copy, except to ensure that I was able to write this in time to convince some of you to read it.

CONTENT: Language, R-rated but not gratuitous. Violence, occasionally gory, plus the whole concept of the ancillaries is a bit unsettling–especially the scene where they thaw out a new body and have to link it into the network. Some sexual innuendo, nothing explicit.

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