Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice won about a million SFF awards in 2014. While I never read enough of the other contenders’ work to judge whether this one truly deserved all the top spots, I can say that it had me rooting for the unlikely protagonist throughout, and left me wanting more.
Like all good science fiction, Ancillary Justice uses futuristic settings to play with possibilities of science and technology, and in doing so subverts the way we think about concepts such as humanity, social inequality and gender. In Leckie’s future, ancillaries are a common feature. Created by fusing the AI of a spaceship with the body of a brain-dead human being, they are intelligent yet inhuman extensions of a ship’s consciousness, and are treated merely as pieces of equipment by the society they serve. But there is much more to some ancillaries than their creators could have anticipated.
The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is (as the title suggests) an ancillary on a personal mission to exact revenge on the individual who betrayed her captain and destroyed her ship. Breq proves to be far more than simply a slave of the Radch, and is moulded – but not defined – by her complicated interactions with those around her. As a protagonist she is unusual, intriguing and more than a little likeable.
I initially found the plot of Ancillary Justice to be slightly confusing, although this probably says more about my own lack of familiarity with the genre and its tropes than it does about the novel itself. However, I would have been prepared to endure even more confusion if it meant avoiding the infrequent yet unwarranted infodumps scattered throughout the beginning of the book. This doesn’t happen often enough to really detract from the story, but it has to be said that there are one or two awkward instances of the old ‘let’s have a detailed conversation about lots of things we as characters clearly already know about’ (aka. ‘Well, as you know, Bob…’) where I would have preferred a gradual drip-feed of information instead. My usual diet of traditional fantasy doesn’t generally stretch my brain in these sorts of directions, and I find figuring things out for myself to be fun rather than frustrating.
The main thing I struggled to get my head around was the concept of the novel’s antagonist, largely due to the somewhat bewildering use of pronouns used by characters with multiple embodiments. Thankfully, things became much clearer as the novel progressed, as did the subtle differences between the three different incarnations of the protagonist herself; I came to really appreciate the divergences in Breq’s behaviour from the past to the present. In fact, I would love to read Ancillary Justice again in the future having finally got my head around the way things work in the Radch.
A point of interest within Ancillary Justice is the lack of gender in the imperial language of the Radch. As a result, the narrator refers to everyone as ‘she’, regardless of biology or identity. While this does lead to some confusion – namely in the instances where Breq is speaking in another language and is forced to try and pinpoint others’ gender in order to correctly address them – eventually it becomes such a natural part of the narrative that you stop even trying to figure out whether a character is a man or a woman because, in Leckie’s world, it simply doesn’t matter.
I would probably never have bought this novel if not for a bored evening spent searching for potential new reads using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature. The beginning of Ancillary Justice – a chance meeting in suspicious circumstances between characters who have been estranged for a thousand years – was sufficiently intriguing to hook me into buying, as was the clearly unconventional nature of the protagonist. The rest of the story is engaging and continues in a way that keeps the reader intrigued: it’s well-paced and nicely structured, with chapters that alternate between past and present to gradually reveal more and more about events leading up to the main plot.
The author makes us care about secondary and (heh) ancillary characters, despite the fact that we’re encountering them through the impassive filter of an ‘inhuman’ AI. And then there’s the AI herself. Breq will have readers desperate to grab the next book in the series to see what’s next for her, crying, ‘Bring on Ancillary Sword!’