Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Ann Leckie‘s debut SF novel Ancillary Justice [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] has gotten a lot of buzz since its release. The book won the Clarke Award, the BFSA Award, made the honor list for the Tiptree Award, and is a Hugo Award finalist for Best Novel. I’m pretty sure it was also a Nebula finalist, tied for an Oscar, and won this year’s Super Bowl.
It’s an ambitious book, spanning centuries of future history. The protagonist Breq is all that remains of the Justice of Toren, an artificially intelligent ship with thousands of ancillaries — human bodies all controlled by the ship’s mind. Justice of Toren was essentially a single entity with thousands of bodies, and Breq was one of those ancillaries.
This isn’t a Star Trek-style Borg hive where individual personalities are subsumed into a collective; the host bodies are basically dead, without minds or personalities of their own. They’re “corpse soldiers.” Justice of Toren is one being who gets caught up in political crossfire and finds herself reduced to a fragment of what she was: a lone human body, limited and alone.
The first part of the book alternates between present and past, plunging the reader into the story and slowly providing the background. This is not a book you should try to skim. After I finished reading, I found myself wanting to immediately go back through the opening chapters again and pick up on everything I’d missed the first time.
I love the way Leckie plays with identity. Anaander Mianaai, the long-lived Lord of the Radch, is similar to Breq in that Mianaai has many human bodies, all linked. I won’t spoil things here, but I really liked the revelation of where the ongoing political conflict originated, and Mianaai’s role in it.
A lot of the conversations and reviews I’ve seen focus on Leckie’s treatment of gender in the book, both as a cultural construct — gender is treated differently depending on which culture Breq is immersed in at the time — and as a source of personal confusion. What is gender for a being with hundreds or thousands of different individual bodies? Breq often stumbles over gender identification and pronoun use.
It creates an interesting effect when a character Breq has referred to as “she” is then described as “he” for the next part of the book. I found myself rethinking their interactions, the dynamic between them, and more.
I don’t know that the book does anything truly new or revolutionary with gender, but it certainly does more than most mainstream SF these days, and I appreciate the way Leckie thought about it throughout the story.
Leckie also examines colonization, the destruction and assimilation of cultures, the drive for continued expansion and conquest, and more. It’s powerful and often painful. Aspects of that cold, calculating cruelty are what eventually launch Breq on her quest for vengeance.
I have mixed feelings about Breq’s mission. She’s out to kill as many of Anaander Mianaai as she can, but she also knows she probably won’t be able to take out more than one or two of Mianaai’s bodies before being caught and killed herself. Given that Mianaai has hundreds or thousands of bodies, I kept wondering what’s the point? Given the setup, that’s like avenging yourself on someone by cutting her fingernail.
It may be that Breq was simply lost and knew full well that this was a pointless mission, one that was little more than suicide. But if so, I wish that had been made a little bit more clear. (Or maybe I just missed it.) I do like that the ending went in a different direction, and how that set things up for the next book.
I should also mention the character of Seivarden Vendaai, who ends up accompanying Breq. Vendaai undergoes a powerful transformation as well, being a soldier a thousand years out of her own time. She’s a snob and a drug addict, completely burnt out and bitter. I very much appreciated seeing her growth — and at times, her backsliding — over the course of the story.
All in all, a thoughtful book with strong worldbuilding, and a particularly impressive debut. Ancillary Justice is book one of a trilogy. Book two, Ancillary Sword, comes out in October of this year. You can read an excerpt of the first book here.
I haven’t read all of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels yet, and I wouldn’t presume to pick a winner, but I think Leckie is a strong contender.
May 13, 2014 @ 3:12 pm
One of the most innovative character depictions i have seen the last hundred books ;-).
May 13, 2014 @ 4:27 pm
After I finished reading, I found myself wanting to immediately go back through the opening chapters again and pick up on everything I’d missed the first time I agree- this book cries out for re-reading.
Even more than the gender-usage, I loved how Leckie dealt with the ‘one individual/many bodies’ characters. if I had to use one word to describe this book, it would be ‘Delany–ish.’
May 13, 2014 @ 4:35 pm
What I understood of Breq’s mission is that killing Mianaai is simply a way to get the attention of the other bodies, considering the secret she holds and wants to see revealed, and the consequences she expects.
Jim C. Hines
May 13, 2014 @ 5:28 pm
I didn’t pick up on that, but it might be one of those things I’d need to go back and re-read to catch…
May 13, 2014 @ 8:52 pm
I’m in agreement with Syderia: I think you’ve mistaken the crucial part of Breq’s plan (being extra-vague here so as not to spoil).
I know the feeling! I’m sure I missed all sorts of layers in this very complex book. I’m really looking forward to rereading it and catching more details before book 2 comes out this fall. 😀
Jim C. Hines
May 13, 2014 @ 8:56 pm
That’s very possible. Especially since I do most of my reading at night before bed, and some nights … well, let’s just say there are nights my brain goes to bed before the rest of me.
May 13, 2014 @ 9:39 pm
I read this book through again immediately after finishing it, and it was very much worth it (something my son makes fun of me for doing). Reading it with all the background knowledge was a different experience from reading it cold – both very worthwhile. An impressive first novel!
May 13, 2014 @ 9:54 pm
It’s a complicated and challenging book. Which makes it well worth reading, though not always easy reading, as many people online have expressed. Still, a worthy contender.
May 13, 2014 @ 11:07 pm
You know something funny? I totally experienced Breq as female inside my head, but I experienced Seivarden as male. Now I have to revisit the pronouns, lol.
Definitely a very complex book and one I intend to reread. I can’t wait for the sequel.
May 14, 2014 @ 10:04 am
Thanks Pam, that’s exactly the description I was thinking of: Delany-ish. I had the same sense of wonder reading this book that I had the first time I read Delany.
May 14, 2014 @ 10:07 am
I thought Breq’s motivation was pretty clear by halfway through the book: “you killed the one person in the entire universe that I have loved, and I will follow you into the pits of Hell to avenge her.” Insert appropriate quote from Captain Ahab here.
May 14, 2014 @ 12:48 pm
I loved this book. I thought that Breq’s goal was to kill one or more Anaander Mianaais in a way that would make as central an Anaander-Mianaai-consciousness as possible aware that vengeance was being taken, and by whom. Of course it was going to be suicidal, but the attempt had to be made, for the honor of the ship.
May 14, 2014 @ 2:58 pm
I, too, am reasonably certain that Seivarden thought of himself as male, at the least.
May 15, 2014 @ 9:48 am
The “kill an many Mianaais as I can” plan is one Breq tells to get the gun. But Breq’s actions at the end – i.e. attracting Mianaais’ attention to make sure both fractions will be present at the crucial moment – strongly suggest that this had been the plan all along.
May 15, 2014 @ 9:59 am
I had only one problem with AJ: every time the great and wonderful (and CIVILIZED, let’s not forget that part) Radch and it’s refined culture had been described in any detail (especially the annexations) I wanted it to burn (or peferrably be send into nothingness by time vortex infused Rose).
May 15, 2014 @ 4:41 pm
Most civilizations look like that from the outside.
May 16, 2014 @ 9:49 pm
Loved this book. I’m trying to save my reread until right before the (already ordered) second book comes out. Assuming I can hold off that long.
May 20, 2014 @ 10:39 pm
(Are spoilers OK? Spoiler warning, if so.)
I’m clearly in the minority on this, but I just couldn’t get into this book. The thing that was the biggest problem for me is that the ending was hopelessly confusing. There were a few dozen Anaander Mianaais running around, all of them belonging to different factions, and the text made it impossible to tell who was on what side.
translate or die | Kurzbesprechungen meiner Lektüre März bis Juni (Teil 1)
June 17, 2014 @ 5:38 am
[…] sämtliche SF-Preise ab. Ausführlichere und bessere Besprechungen gibt es bei Jakob Schmidt und Jim C. Hines. Ancillary Justice wird im nächsten Jahr bei Heyne unter dem nichtssagenden und unsinnigen Titel […]