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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Book Review

A book can wallow in my “must-read” pile for a while before I feel compelled to start it. With Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, it took the Speculative Literature: Year in Review panel before I kicked it to the top of the list. What both of my co-panelists, Gillian Daniels and Tegan Maninno, said about the book was that it was the best kind of space opera, epic in scope, full of rich characterization, with interesting takes on gender and identity. Sold.

Basically Ancillary Justice introduces a universe several millennia in the future where an expansionist empire called the Radch is beginning to descend into a very unusual kind of civil war. The protagonist, Breq, is actually the final remaining instance of a ship-borne intelligence called Justice of Toren, nearly obliterated due to the machinations of the empire’s ruler. Now, left with one very capable but limited physical body, Breq/Justice of Toren, seeks to exact revenge upon the Radch ruler Anaander Mianaai for her many misdeeds.
The plot is unusually concise for a space opera, embracing two main plot lines. In the first, Breq encounters a former crew mate on an ice world. In the second, which occurs a couple of decades before, Breq is helping to oversee the transition of a recently conquered world into the Radch empire. Through both narratives, the reasons for Breq’s need for vengeance on Mianaai become clear. I think both sections are very well-handled but at least in the beginning, it was the narrative of Breq tracking down the means for vengeance that really got me interested in the story. 

Leckie has a real talent for world-building, focused less on the technological gee-whiz underpinnings of her galaxy-spanning empire and more upon the human motivations for events. Although not on the same scale as Frank Herbert’s famous series, her take on politics reminded me of Dune’s realpolitik approach to hegemony and dynastic machinations. She also has a similar way of building a sense of a different universe through the actions of her characters as much as exposition.

Ancillary Justice also shows the power of voice in a science fiction novel. Breq/Justice of Toren, brings a unique perspective on common space opera tropes. As a former space ship able to project her consciousness through several ancillaries - essentially humans running as a hive mind - the Justice of Toren was able to see many events at once but be removed from the actual human emotions that caused them to happen. In addition, the Radch have a gender-free civilization and so Breq has trouble identifying the sex of the other human cultures she encounters, a fact she handles by simply referring to everyone with the female pronoun. A reader might struggle against this, straining to read between the words for clues about what a character’s ‘actual’ gender is. A reader might even find this necessity disturbing or frustrating, but for me, I found that element incredibly illuminating.

Far from a gimmick, this device allows Leckie to arrive at the main themes of the novel - that the basic problem of an empire like the Radch is not the loss of freedom or the inevitable spread of corruption or even the injustice of a capricious ruler but that such an institution flies in the face of a basic fact of human existence - that culture is constructed, real, and infinitely diverse. To claim that one culture is ‘civilized’ or that one mode of perception of correct is in itself a needless amputation of human possibility.

One curious aspect of the novel, probably a direct result of having such an unusual perspective is its narrowness. I guess another way of saying this is that the story has very little sprawl. Although some elements of Ancillary Justice, its far-future setting, the ubiquity of technology, its concern over the nature of identity, remind me of the late Ian Banks, this is a far more compact novel. There are no set-pieces that exist merely to flesh out some random corner of her universe. There are no characters that don’t some direct way serve the basic plot of the story. There is a brutal economy of action, character, and setting. In someways this reminds me of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap Cycle, particularly in its treatment of how simple narratives cover up more complex realities. Like Donald’s “Real Story,” the past is continually feeding back into the present, the significance of prior events revised and altered by relentless revelations.

I'm looking forward to the followup released this year and whereever this novel goes from there. I think the thing that really entrances me about this book is that it finds this nearly perfect blend of space opera scale and action with the intimacy and sensitiveness of new wave science fiction. There is plenty spectacle but a generous approach to human possibilities.
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