Review: Ancillary Justice
Thousands of years in the future humans have created an inter-planetary empire, and they’ve done it by using powerful starships to take over human and alien planets. While the starship officers are human, the crew is comprised of ancillaries, people who resisted empire annexation of their home planets, taken into custody and stored for future use. An ancillary’s mind and identity is wiped when they’re hooked into the ship’s central AI–in essence, an ancillary is the ship.
Breq used to be an ancillary to the starship Justice of Toren, but is the only survivor. The separation from her ship is sometimes disorienting for her, but at the same time what she learned while an ancillary has made her deadly. And she plans to use that ability to seek revenge for what was taken, even from the Lord of the Radch herself.
Ann Leckie takes her time telling Breq’s story in ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Amazon). We’re told in parallel the current story (the quest) and past events when Breq was an ancillary (the why for the quest). The result is a slow narrative as Leckie attempts to reveal piece by piece the whole sordid story and the politics surrounding it. The prose is clean with the feel of Le Guin or other writers of that era, without being overbearing. The writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but I still found myself stepping back to study what Leckie was doing because it seemed so effortless yet evocative.
While the second half of the book moves quicker that the first, it’s still slow, and that will put off more action-oriented science fiction readers. The plot is straightforward, but it’s the deliberate pace of the story that will deceive you into thinking it’s more complicated than it really is. So what’s the problem causing this tepid pacing? It’s Breq’s navel-gazing.
ANCILLARY JUSTICE tries to be a space opera, but first-person narration focuses the story so pin-point small on the PoV narrator that there’s not a lot of room left to help readers understand the true scope of events. Don’t get me wrong, I was utterly fascinated with Breq’s story, what she was, or rather what she had been, and how that defines her. How she misses what she once was and doesn’t seem to wonder who she was before she was an ancillary. But it is this very character-oriented story that will frustrate readers because Leckie hints that there is so much more, but can’t give it to us because of the limitations of the narrative.
And what else is there? There are many different worlds. There are aliens. There are AI ships and an ever-expanding empire–and don’t forget the ancillaries. There’s the Lord of the Radch, who has cloned herself in order to rule said empire, and is in effect immortal… yet also at war with herself. There is a sort-of caste system. There is some gender bending (the Radch language uses “she” for male and female) that drove me crazy but at the same time was also oddly liberating–it kept me focused on what made these people tick beyond their gender, which can influence how we see even fictional characters.
There’s early buzz for this book, putting it on the short-list for awards season. Certainly ANCILLARY JUSTICE was different in a lot of good ways, and written by a lady with serious writing chops. But at the same time you can’t compare her to a Lois McMaster Bujold or an Ian M. Banks, obviously, because Leckie is starting out and Bujold/Banks (and others too numerous to mention here) are firmly established in the genre, and have even broached the same issues Leckie has. But where Leckie is scratching the surface, Bujold/Banks have been digging in the trenches for years and have shown us consistently the wonder and awe of the universe. Whether Leckie deserves the buzz is yet to be seen, because right now ANCILLARY JUSTICE isn’t enough to stand on its own.
- Recommended Age: 16+ more for comprehension than content
- Language: Maybe five instances
- Violence: A handful of instances, and while blood is referenced there is little detail
- Sex: None