In the process of assembling my book list for this review blog, it occurred to me that very few of the sci-fi books on my list were written by women (that’s also true of my fantasy consumption, but to a lesser extent). Unfortunately, that experience seems to be all too common, as evidenced by the recent furor over the “sad puppy, rabid puppy, etc.” business related to the Hugo Awards.
When I mentioned this situation to a few friends, two immediately responded “you have to try Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series.” And so I did! Typically I’ve been reviewing entire series at once, but I’ll make an exception and do individual book reviews for works that I’m currently in the process of reading. Hence, this review will be specific to book one of the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Justice.
This is a difficult book to describe without giving away too many plot details, but I’ll give it my best shot. Our protagonist, Breq, is an AI within a human body, who had previously been one component of a many-bodied AI (i.e. a consciousness spread across multiple human hosts). Somewhat confusingly, the same AI existing in those human hosts also inhabited the spaceship that the hosts were stationed on, such that the ship’s name, Justice of Toren, could be used to refer either to the ship itself, or to the AI inhabiting both the ship and its android-esque crew.
As the story opens, Breq has been separated from her ship and fellow crew mates, for reasons that will become clear via flashbacks, and she is now engaged in a rather single-minded quest (here’s where I really can’t say more without giving away the plot). The first quarter of the book is a challenge, both because Leckie uses gender pronouns in an unorthodox way, and because the nature of Breq/Justice of Toren’s consciousness is quite foreign to how we typically conceive of individual identity. For instance, in describing Justice of Toren’s activities in the flashback sections, Leckie has to come up with creative ways to make it clear that the individual ancillaries who make up the ship consciousness are in fact doing various different things, but at the same time (e.g. “I stood watch in the concourse. I also patrolled the hallway.”).
There were definitely moments early in the book where I found myself re-reading sections multiple times, and I admit that I don’t think Leckie did herself any favors in coming up with somewhat complex naming/identifying conventions for the ships and their ancillaries. But with that said, after I had waded through the initial confusion, I really enjoyed this book. This is truly provocative stuff, and the story definitely picks up pace during the final half of the book. Stick with it, if you’ve tried it and given up!
While I mostly read for plot (I’m the kind of person who skips the songs in Tolkien, for instance), there are times when I catch myself thinking “wow, this is really interesting writing.” In Ancillary Justice, Leckie has come up with a central premise that is both potentially confusing and cumbersome, in the sense that she really has to contort her language in order to be able to accurately describe the identity and actions of Breq (and to a certain extent, all the ancillaries/ship AI’s). The fact that she is able to perform those contortions, and to do so within a fascinating and compelling story, is a true credit to her writing. A lesser author could very easily have been defeated by the complexity of her premise.
I have more thoughts on the books, but I’ll save them for my reviews of the next two books in the series. For now, I’ll leave it at this: if you like sci-fi, and you don’t mind a little complexity, then I highly recommend you give Ancillary Justice a try!
Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended