Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

A revenge-epic space opera that's almost as clever as it's trying to be.

Ancillary Justice

Orbit, 2013, 416 pages

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.

From debut author Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice is a stunning space opera that asks what it means to be human in a universe guided by artificial intelligence.

This book has been widely praised as the Best New Space Opera Ever. I expect it will probably be a contender for a Hugo and/or a Nebula. It's really good. I am, however, not sure it's that good. But then again, I liked but didn't love Redshirts, so what do I know?

Ancillary Justice is set in a far future all-human galactic empire known as the Radch. The Radch for millenia has been expanding pretty much without opposition, until they ran into an alien race capable of spanking them into extinction. At this point the Radch discovered diplomacy and borders. Now they have all but stopped conquering planets and are living within their own vast borders, but not everyone is happy about it, since conquering and looting planets has kept the empire's economic engine humming for centuries.

The protagonist goes by the name of Breq, but was once the warship Justice of Toren — literally. Radch ships are run by Artificial Intelligences, who have feelings and loyalties and favorites but nonetheless are also implacable machines performing their programmed functions. When the Radch conquer a planet, in what are called "Annexations," they turn many of the conquered people into corpse-soldiers called Ancillaries. A Radch AI can simultaneously animate hundreds or thousands of Ancillaries, making them many-bodied entities with a crew and an occupying army staffed by the dead bodies of the occupied people.

Radch Annexations are not very nice, despite the gloss the Radch try to put on it, and the way once the shooting is done, the ruling officers diligently go about their duties turning the new colony into a vibrant new outpost of Radch civilization, with the subjugated population becoming full Radch citizens.

"You used to horrify me," said the head priest to me. "The very thought of you near was terrifying, your dead faces, those expressionless voices. But today I am more horrified at the thought of a unit of living human beings who serve voluntarily. Because I don't think I could trust them."

"Divine," said Lieutenant Awn, mouth tight. "I serve voluntarily. I make no excuses for it."

"I believe you are a good person, Lieutenant Awn, despite that." She picked up her cup of tea and sipped it, as though she had not said what she had said.

Ancillary Justice is working several themes at once. There is the dubious benefit of being colonized by a vastly superior power that grants you all the rights and privileges of their society... after having slaughtered a large part of your population. The parallels with colonial powers ancient and modern is obvious. The conversation above is one of many highlighting the moral paradox of a conqueror who believes herself a fair and benevolent person just doing her duty.

Another of the themes is explored with the use of language — the Radch language does not use gendered pronouns. Everyone is "she" by default. We sometimes learn the actual sex of a character, only because Breq learns it incidentally and comments on it, but in many cases we do not. The protagonist in "her" ancillary body remains of indeterminate gender throughout the book. This made for an interesting reading experience; it isn't just that feminine pronouns are being used by default, but that you as a reader know that many of the characters being referred to in the feminine are actually male. (The Radch language is genderless, but the Radch themselves are not.)

I found there were good and bad aspects in the way this was executed. It could have easily gone into a heavy-handed allegory about how gender is purely a social construct, which since I do not believe is true and am skeptical of any author's ability to make it convincing, would have grated on me. But Leckie is only attempting at most a bit of linguistic experimentation, a sort of Le Guin-lite, not a complete reimagining of gender, so it was just there as an occasional disconnect, just jarring enough to make you think about why it was a disconnect.

On the other hand, since Leckie doesn't really explore the implications, it is also hard not to see it as little more than a writing stunt. It is not clear whether the Radch really have no gender roles at all, or if such were just outside the AI protagonist's notice.

Justice of Toren, after seeing a terrible act of betrayal, finds herself no longer a warship with a thousand bodies, but just one, on an ice planet, decades later, and on a quest for revenge. Against the immortal Lord of the Radch, who has an infinite number of bodies herself.

The first half of the book skips back and forth between Breq on her quest and Breq-as-Justice of Toren, years earlier, and the events that led to her quest.

The second half settles into the run up to the final confrontation, with the Lord of the Radch, and of course the uncovering of various conspiracies and characters suddenly acting in unexpected ways.

There is a lot to like about Ancillary Justice. It's one of the better SF novels I've read so far this year.

That said, I have some nits to pick:

1. The Space Romans who are not Space Romans except they totally are Space Romans.

The Radch very obviously resembles the Roman Empire. It's an imperialist power that's basically unapologetic about conquering and looting any lands it can set foot in, but once they're done conquering, the natives end up (arguably) better off — the ones who survive, anyway — and a generation or two later, they all think of themselves as Radch. They're ruled by a divine emperor, they've got various noble houses jockeying for position, and they assimilate native gods exactly as the Romans did.

Ann Leckie said in an interview that she didn't want the Radch to be just Space Romans. So she... made them kind of gender-ambiguous and they really like tea. They really, really like tea. There is a lot of tea drunk in this book. Also, they wear gloves because showing your hands ungloved is very risque if not indecent. (Reminds me of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings with a similar see-how-cleverly-I-demonstrate-how-arbitrary-cultural-taboos-are? device.)

But other than that? Yeah, they are Space Romans.

2. The superhuman AI can't tell boys from girls?

This goes back to my point above: it is not clear whether the society is genderless, or if the AI simply doesn't notice gender. But we're told many times that Breq has trouble telling genders apart (which she has to do when she is on non-Radch planets and speaking non-Radch languages) because all the things you'd usually use to distinguish them are too variable to be reliable.

I could buy this lack of dimorphism if it had been made more explicit. There are references to humans who have been so thoroughly genetically engineered that they are only human at the chromosome level, but still, most people still seem to have standard-issue human bodies. And notably, as an AI, Breq was so adept at reading biometrics that she was practically telepathic, and even when reduced to an ancillary body, she is able to read an awful lot from body language, tone of voice, and facial expression. So "I'm just guessing whether she's a man or a woman" did not seem plausible.

3. The superhuman AI has the Dumbest. Plan. Ever.

My last nit, however, was nearly big enough for me to throw the book against a wall. That I liked the book anyway should be read as a strong recommendation. But.

The first part of the book is about Breq obtaining a secret super-weapon that only she and the Lord of the Radch and one other person in the universe know exists. Her path to acquiring this super-weapon, and the people she meets along the way, involve some coincidences that would make Charles Dickens say "Really, madam, don't you think you are stretching credibility?"

But that's not my nit. Well, it's another nit. Too many coincidences. (The author tries to hang a lampshade on it by Breq's frequent reflection that the Radch do not believe anything happens by chance. No, I wasn't convinced.)

No, the nit was Breq's plan for revenge against the Lord of the Radch:

1. Get into the presence of the Lord of the Radch.
2. Shoot the Lord of the Radch with the magic gun.

Remember what I said about the Lord of the Radch being immortal and having hundreds of bodies?

The magic gun just guarantees that Breq will be able to kill that body, no matter what kind of force fields and armor and other defenses she has. The Lord of the Radch has bodies scattered throughout the empire. Killing one (or even more than one) is nothing more than an annoyance.

No, Breq doesn't have a grander plan. No, she never explains just what she'll get out of shooting one avatar of the Lord of the Radch (and then promptly being gunned down as she fully expects to happen). No, the magic gun doesn't somehow magically kill all the Lords of the Radch everywhere or do anything other than put a lethal hole in that one body.

So, what's the point? It's a suicidal gesture just to flip the bird. It's never explained. It never makes sense. Breq just gets it fixed in her head that she's going to do this, apparently because she has no better ideas.

This is not even the only inexplicable choice she makes.

I liked the book despite these nits, but hopefully Ann Leckie will polish up the areas she is weak (characters whose behavior makes no sense) and continue to emphasize the areas where she is strong (thoughtful examinations of power, prejudice, and cognitive dissonance in a space opera setting).

Verdict: Ancillary Justice is a good book despite some annoying defects in plot and characterization. If you can ignore the pointlessness of the quest which drives the entire plot of the first book, you will like it enough to want to read the next (yes, this is the first book in a trilogy).

Oh, and am I the only one who looks at that cover and thinks of a 80s Atari game?

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: 2014 hugo nominee, books, reviews, science fiction

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