An electronic copy of Ancillary Justice was provided by the publisher. Additionally, me and the author are Twitter-friends.
Ancillary Justice is one hell of a debut novel. It’s unexpected, incredibly readable, and all around awesome.
I should probably break that down a bit. First of all, what’s the book about? It’s about a person named Breq who used to be a spaceship, Justice of Toren. She’s not a spaceship anymore, though–she’s just an ancillary.
And what’s an ancillary? An ancillary is a human body inhabited by the artificial intelligence–in the slang of one of the worlds, a “corpse soldier”. It’s not clear to me if the original inhabitant of the body is flushed when preserved for ancillary usage or later, when being connected to the AI–the text is a bit ambiguous on this and I have the awful suspicion that the original inhabitant is left in suspension for however long it takes–possibly thousands of years–to be hooked up to the AI. I’m basing this mainly on the way Breq–or rather–Justice of Toren One Esk reacts when a new ancillary is activated.
The whole ancillary system is awful. Horrifying. The best words for it and the system of annexations that the Radch embark on is “war crimes”. And yet we still have sympathy for it because Breq, the last remaining piece of Justice of Toren, is so human. Even though she insists, through the entire book, that she is not a person but a piece of equipment (is she capital? does she depreciate? what’s her net book value?).
Anyhow, Breq has a mission. She wants to kill Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, and in order to do so, she needs a weapon. A very specific weapon, the only one of its kind, an artifact of the only failed annexation of a thousand years past.
This story is told in alternating chapters–Breq’s current quest to acquire the Garseddai gun as well as the events on Shis’urna that lead to the destruction of the Justice of Toren. I’m normally not a fan of this type of narrative structure because usually one half of the narrative is more interesting than the other, but this is not the case here–both parts of the narrative are equally compelling and the structure leads to a lot of momentum and tension. I especially loved the way Leckie handled the point of view–if you have twenty sets of eyes, then of course you would have twenty overlapping first person perspectives. It takes a bit to get used to, but once you get the rhythm it makes perfect sense.
There are civilizations that are thousands of years old, there are mysterious aliens, and there’s singing–Breq is a ship who sings and oh, how much do I love that? This is a book about colonization, war crimes, cultures divided and at secret war with themselves, and what it means to be a person–and at its heart is this amazing character, Breq.
And I haven’t even gotten into the worldbuilding. We see three different cultures directly and hints of at least two others and they have a surprisingly solid feel to them. They feel coherent and irrational in ways that cultures often are (what is the deal with the Radch and the gloves? the text never tells us, it is just a Thing that is done).
Because this is told from the perspective of someone who came from the Radch we also are immersed in the Radch’s rejection of gendered language–everyone is she or her which is just such an interesting decision on Leckie’s part and one that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he and him is not a gender-neutral choice, at least for me it did. Even when it’s clear that some characters have male bodies (like Seivarden), the use of she and her makes them seem more feminine and we don’t actually know for sure what sort of body Breq has, we just know that this segment of Justice of Toren One Esk has a raspy voice which is a bit heartbreaking to learn considering how much she likes to sing. The singing also plays a crucial role in the plot, it’s not just an eccentricity.
This is a wonderful book. It’s the kind of space opera I love to read and it hits one thing I really enjoy in my science fiction: sentient technology. Let me put it this way: even though I received a free electronic copy of this book, I’ve also purchased a paper copy for my library because I’m going to want to read this over and over again (and possibly make notes and draw hearts in the margins). I know that this review is massively disjointed; for more coherent ones I point you to Liz Bourke’s at Tor.com and Annalee Newitz’s at io9.
I’m also in the midst of making a playlist of music by or about sentient tech. Some of these songs were suggested by folks on Twitter, three of them are songs actually referenced in the book, and others are ones I’ve been fond of for years now. Enjoy!