Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is a space opera novel that has been getting a lot of press lately as it wins award after award. It is the 2013 debut novel by Ann Leckie, though she has already written many short stories. I've had this book on my list for some time and finally got some time to read it. Be forewarned that it's part of an unfinished trilogy, but I have no problem starting series and I think this is one I will certainly continue.

The official blurb:
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren-a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose-to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
The book started off a bit confusing, both because of the alternating timeline between the even and odd chapters, but also because of the unique nature of the main character. This is all quickly straightened out, though, so it pays off to persevere. Overall, the book is very interesting and ambitious. I can see why it has won or been nominated for several awards. The cast of characters is fairly small, which streamlines the story and keeps the story focused despite the potential for an epic scope.

The plot initially alternates between the present and the past. Eventually, both timelines intersect and then we just follow the present. Through events of 20 years past, we follow Lieutenant Awn and Justice of Toren One Esk in the city of Ors. Through the present events, we follow Breq on her hidden mission that becomes clear as the story progresses. The best part of the book is learning about the nature of ancillaries and what's going on in Radch space and so I can't write much here without spoiling it. Suffice to say it's a fairly fast-paced plot.

All characters in this book are referred to as 'she' (or 'her' or equivalent terms). This is a limitation (or strength) of the Radchaii language. It is amazingly clever and by the end of the book, you realize it doesn't matter if the characters are male or female since they are awesome and gender plays no role in that. I've heard of cases where in order to empower women, women are written as men and/or men as beasts, neither of which, in my opinion, really helps promote gender equality. Like the author, I'll adopt here the pronoun 'she' for all characters even though I know not all are female.

The main character is an ancillary of Justice of Toren, a ship transport. That is, she is a body controlled by the ship. And the ship itself. And all the other ancillaries that she controls, all at the same time. At the same time she can be meeting a lieutenant, she can be patrolling the streets, sleeping, cooking, eating, performing maintenance, and orbiting the planet. The author makes clever use of this by frequently shifting the point of view, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, to give a sense of how interesting a ship like Justice of Toren can be.

Setting / World Building
As always, an important part of my appreciation for novels is the setting of the book. The author does not disappoint with plenty of descriptions of Radch society and the artificial intelligences that run ships, stations, and Radch itself. Over the past few thousand years, the Radchaai have been expanding their domain through military conquest of their surrounding territories. Their expansion, however, has stopped in recent times and a treaty has been formed with the Presger alien race. Tensions, however, are high as not everyone agrees with the treaty or the stop in expansion.

The Ship and Station A.I.s are pretty neat and are explicitly stated to have emotions (as that way they perform better) and sometimes show favoritism to their favorite captains or lieutenants. In the past, and certainly for Justice of Toren, the main troops are ancillary units that are a direct part of the Ship itself. This can make Ships extremely powerful entities and is probably a reason why Radch expansion has gone so well. It is mentioned that the core of Radch is a Dyson sphere, which is pretty neat. It'll be interesting to see if we visit that in the subsequent books.

Final Thoughts
I enjoyed this book and had to slow down so I didn't finish it so fast. It was an interesting world with some cool characters and a good plot. I actually like the play of words in the title since it's both about an ancillary seeking justice and an ancillary named Justice (of Toren). It does play a bit into some of the established sci-fi tropes, but that's not strictly a bad thing. The next book in the series is scheduled to release later this year, so it's something to keep an eye out for. I wasn't sure whether to give it 4 or 5 stars in Goodreads as I think it lies somewhere in between. I've been generous and given it 5 stars.

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