Wow! What a read! Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed my attention from the first paragraphs, when Breq, a humanoid who was once a soldier, finds an unconscious body in the snow.
There was something itchingly familiar about that outthrown arm, the line from shoulder down to hip. But it was hardly possible I knew this person. I didn’t know anyone here. This was the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it was possible to be.
Breq appears to be a soldier and so does the figure in the snow, Seivarden. Seivarden is a drug addict coming off a high, and will only slow Breq down, but she helps Seivarden anyway.
These two characters have more in common than either of them first realize. Each is a lost soul. Seivarden was in a state of suspension for a thousand years, after the loss of a starship in a battle. Breq was Justice of Toren, a Radchaai battleship. I could say that she was the AI of that ship, but Justice of Toren was a being with a consciousness that was not separated from her physical self, any more than my hand would call my brain its AI. As well as knowing every aspect of herself as a ship, Justice of Toren had eyes, ears and minds on the surface of any planet she orbited through the use of “ancillaries,” human bodies augmented with implants and loaded up with Justice of Toren’s consciousness. Twenty years ago, in a shocking act of sabotage, Justice of Toren was destroyed except for the one remaining ancillary who calls herself Breq.
Leckie enfolds us in the concept of a distributed consciousness through masterful use of point of view. Breq is a first-person narrator in the “present tense” part of the story, even if that narrator has two thousand years of direct experience to draw from. In the backstory sections, as Justice of Toren, the point of view, still first-person, ranges among Justice of Toren’s many nodes of awareness. In the tale’s present tense, Breq searches for a unique weapon, needed for her final act of vengeance.
If Leckie had done nothing more than give us a vengeance quest that explored collective consciousness, Ancillary Justice would still be an engrossing read. She reaches much farther than that, showing us a complex, elaborate culture; musing on the nature of empire and conquest; contemplating the purpose of religion and depicting a highly stratified, rule-bound society that is facing changes it doesn’t understand.
The forward momentum of the story of Breq’s search flags slightly at the end of the first third of the book, but the back story is so puzzling and suspenseful that it carries us over that slack patch. Leckie’s descriptions are lovely; the temples, Breq’s icons, and the baskets of flowers ready to be purchased for offerings all stand out, as does the use of music and song. With a single well-placed sentence Leckie demonstrates how traditions evolve in a society.
… Directly ahead stood the temple. The steps were not really steps, but an area marked out on the paving with red and green and blue stones; actions on the steps of the temple potentially had legal significance.
All of this could be cool and slightly abstract, except that Breq is a real character; complicated, flawed and ultimately heroic. Secondary characters like Seivarden and the two Radchaai lieutenants, Awn and Awer, are well drawn, as is the Ruler of the Radch, who is a fascinating adversary. Once we understand Breq’s quest and her motivations, we root for her even though we realize that what she seeks to do is impossible.
Ancillary Justice is a masterful achievement. The pacing is right, deep and serious concepts unfold as we ride along on an adventure that grows increasingly tense and intense with each passing scene. Not many science fiction writers can make a conversation that happens over tea and pastries nail-bitingly suspenseful, but Leckie manages.
Finally, if you know someone who still insists that words like “mankind” and “his” are inclusive and general rather than exclusive, have them read this book just for what Leckie does with the pronouns. This stylistically challenging choice not only opens a window into Justice of Toren’s worldview, it makes us think about our own assumptions of language and gender.
Since I’m not a big fan of military SF, which some might consider this book to be, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. This was a delightful surprise. Ancillary Justice is a book of big ideas wrapped in a gripping four-star adventure.