Book Review: Ancillary Justice
Man, this year and last year have really re-ignited my love of science fiction. Prior to last year, it'd been years since I read any new scifi other than Dune books. But lately I've been fortunate to read books like Ancillary Justice. I can definitely see why it won the Hugo the year it came out, and I can also see why Ninefox Gambit was compared to it - plenty of similarities in the empire-ending goals of the main characters and the unconventional worldbuilding.
Ancillary Justice follows a character named Breq, the last remaining piece of the starship Justice of Toren. Breq's ship (which was Breq) was destroyed and one of her favorite officers killed as part of a secret plot by Anaander Mianaai, the leader of the Radch empire, against herself. Now Breq is out for revenge and plans to expose the cracks in Radch leadership, simultaneously hindered and aided by a former officer feeling out of place after hundreds of years in hibernation.
Let me start by saving that Breq is SUCH a cool main character. I really love unconventional main characters, and science fiction tends to deliver much better in this regard than fantasy. Here, Breq is an "ancillary," a human body (formerly a prisoner from a conquered world) whose mind has been overwritten by the ship. All Radch ships used to contain mainly ancillaries for their grunt soldiers and workforce, though the practice is being phased out at the time of the novel.
Breq was the only part of Justice of Toren to survive the ship's destruction, so her perspective is incredibly unique. Leckie does an excellent job of conveying that alienness. Breq's emotions are downplayed, and in many scenes she simply functions as an observer. However, you can see them bleeding through in certain scenes, even when Breq herself doesn't recognize them for what they are. In flashbacks, where there are more ancillaries and thus more "parts" of Breq/Justice of Toren, her narration jumps between her different "bodies" at will, just as her consciousness would have experienced it. It reminded me a lot of Lovelace/Sidra in A Closed and Common Orbit, probably because Becky Chambers drew some inspiration from this novel.
Anaander Mianaai makes an equally good villain. I love the concept of a villain who mirrors the main character, and Anaander is unique in that she also has multiple "bodies." Anaander is literally her own worst enemy - as we discover, she has split into two factions working against each other. It's also refreshing to see a villain that's well-drawn and not a paper-thin cliche; Anaander's motivations are explored in detail, and her actions make sense, even when they conflict with Breq.
Seivarden completes this little triad by serving as Breq's foil. Breq rescues Seivarden at the start of the novel, and while she (or technically he, for Seivarden is definitely male) is initially ungrateful and Breq nearly abandons her, she ultimately becomes one of Breq's strongest allies. She's very different from Breq, particularly in the way she views the world, so their interactions provide conflict in the lead-up to the book's climax.
I was aware of the "genderless" pronoun usage going in - the Radch language doesn't account for gender, and since Breq is Radchaai, she refers to all the characters as "she" in her narration. We get occasional glimpses of real genders, but since none of it is relevant to the story and the usage is so consistent, it eventually disappears into the background. I hardly even noticed it by the end; it just wasn't necessary information.
But on this topic - holy language fun, Batman! I love books that verge on or play with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that language affects the way we think and perceive), so the whole concept of the words "radch / radchaai" was just bonkers fun for me. It literally means "civilized," making anyone or anything that isn't Radch inherently uncivilized. There are other moments in the story too where Breq simply doesn't have words for some things because of the Radch tongue.
The one criticism I have is that I was hoping for more action. With spaceships on the front cover (and a spaceship as the main character!) and the promise of shaking an empire, I thought I'd be seeing space battles and combat galore! Instead, that level of action is confined to the last 100 or so pages. That's not to say the plot is bad - it takes its time to delve into Breq's emotions and motives, a tricky task for a novel with an AI main character. It just wasn't as action-packed as I'd hoped.
Powerful though. Particularly in how Breq reconciles her feelings about Lieutenant Awn, her favorite lieutenant and the catalyst for most of the novel's events. You won't be disappointed by the ending.
So now I have to go find Ancillary Sword...