Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Science Fiction – #1 of 3, Imperial Radch Trilogy

“If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference, Lieutenant Skaaiat had said, and I had agreed. I still agree.  The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference… The single word that directs a person’s fate and ultimately the fates of those she comes in contact with is of course a common subject of entertainments and moralizing stories, but if everyone were to consider all the possible consequences of all one’s possible choices, no one would move a millimeter, or even dare to breathe for fear of the ultimate results.”

I already expressed some pre-review excitement on this blog. That entry can basically be summed up with the following:

  • Ancillary Justice is a book about a SENTIENT SPACESHIP that enjoys SINGING
  • And it’s amazing

Ancillary Justice takes place during two different periods of our starship protagonist Breq’s existence. Created as a tool for the expansionist Radch Empire, one timeline focuses on her experiences as a segment of twenty bodies (ancillaries) enforcing for the Empire on an annexed planet. In the second timeline, she has only a single body, and she is outside of Radch territory and on a mission of her own. What happened to Breq and what she is doing now are gradually revealed in an exciting and fantastic space opera, and possibly my new favourite book ever.

I love the structure of the book, which alternates chapters between the two timelines. The plot moves slowly but steadily, with each chapter answering a few more questions. You get the sense that the world is fully formed from the novel’s beginning, but is only revealed to the reader piece by piece through the lens of Breq’s thoughts and experiences. This slow buildup of information makes for an involved and engaging reading experience, as you put together the pieces to get a sense of the whole, as well as making those occasions where there is a big reveal much more exciting and dramatic.

As for protagonist and narrative voice Breq, I positively adore her. She presents as wooden and stoic, and yet never comes across as cold or boring; she is driven, knowledgeable, and though she doesn’t express it in her face or voice as humans do, she has a huge depth of feeling. I have described her as Spaceship-Spock to friends and family, but the truth is that while she may channel his deadpan deliveries, she is not always logical. Breq is actually quite reactive, and often doesn’t know herself why she is doing something or what she hopes to accomplish. It makes her an exciting and a little bit unpredictable protagonist. She is also a TOTAL badass, which is of course very fun.

Another thing Ancillary Justice does brilliantly is the small touches and details, which not only make the world building feel real and grounded, but often offer deep insight into the culture. For example, Breq’s observations about language hugely enrich our understanding of the Radch: early in the narrative one character makes a joke that Breq observes is a play on words, because ‘citizen’ and ‘civilized’ are the same word in Radch. This one small note Breq makes to herself reveals everything the reader needs to know about the Radch imperialist imperative, without having to explicitly spell anything out. It’s a masterful exercise in show-don’t-tell with countless similar examples; one of my other favourites is Breq noting that the word ‘coincidence’ as we understand it does not really exist in Radch, again leading the reader to infer a great deal about Radch religion and beliefs about determinism.

And then there is the pronoun thing. While biological sexes exist, the Radch do not distinguish between them. As a result, Breq uses ‘she’ to identify all of the characters in the book. At first I was really amazed to be reading a book where everyone seemed to be female. Eventually, I figured out that this was Breq using ‘she’ as a gender-neutral pronoun. This is a fantastic challenge to the deeply-ingrained idea that male is the default generic pronoun. But further than that, having Breq use she to refer to characters we know present as male to non-Radch creates a challenging dissonance for the reader. It becomes very hard to keep caring about what gender or sex anyone is, and eventually most readers will be driven to give up on it—and in doing so, accept that gender is not so absolutely essential to understanding and framing characters as we usually perceive it to be.

This doesn’t even touch on many other things I loved, like Breq’s relationships with her companions (most notably Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn), or the way the story provoked some serious thought from me on issues like class mobility, identity, the nature of consciousness, and free will and self-determination. This is a book that has so many ideas and themes that they cannot all possibly be unraveled in one reading, and I had to resist turning back to the first page and starting it all over again when I finished. It represents the very best of science fiction: intelligent, creative, and thoughtful commentary combined with action, heroics, and adventure.

I had very few expectations for this book but sequel Ancillary Sword now has stratospherically high ones. I can’t wait to pick it up.

If you like ______, you might want to pick up Ancillary Justice:

  • Space operas
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Imperial overlords
  • Inventive approaches to typical science fiction tropes
  • Complex, nuanced world- and culture-building
  • Action/adventure mixed with commentary on gender, culture, class, imperialism and colonialism, choice and free will, the nature of sentience, unity and fractured identity… and so many other things I’m missing, probably

You might want to pass on Ancillary Justice if you:

  • Like things spelled out neatly – there is some potential for confusion
  • Prefer straight-up action/adventure

Related: Ancillary Justice Discussion Questions, Pre-review of Ancillary Sword

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)”

  1. For some reason I didn’t know this story was about a sentient spaceship! I’m probably the last person on the planet who hasn’t read this book, although it’s been on my list for a while. Awesome review!

    1. Bahaha, you are not the only one – I picked it up without even reading a plot blurb about it, so I had no idea either! I was basically ecstatic once I figured it out. I mean, who doesn’t love sentient spaceships?

  2. Sometimes I feel like the only person in the world that wasn’t blown away by this book! I still really liked it, though. It’s hard to explain, but I guess in the end it wasn’t my style, but I totally adored the concepts and themes in it, and if more authors could come up with such unique and innovative ideas like Ann Leckie I’ll be a happy camper.

    1. Well put 🙂
      And you’re definitely not the only one! I had an interesting discussion with a couple sci-fi loving friends yesterday and we were divided fairly equally between those who merely enjoyed Ancillary Justice, and those for whom it immediately skyrocketed to the top of their ‘best Sci-Fi of all time’ lists. And we never really came to a conclusion about why it resonated so much more with some of us than with others.

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