Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is a very well crafted debut novel. I think the major component that sets it apart is the truly alien feel that you get from Breq’s perspective. Who is Breq? Well, that is immediately where the story gets interesting. Breq is not used to being an individual as we think of individuals. Rather she is just one component, called an ancillary, of a larger functioning ship that serves the Radchaai Empire. The ancillaries have implants that allow thought communication with each other and the ship’s AI, which is so advanced it seems almost sentient. This essentially creates a hive mind where ancillaries share thoughts, memories, motivations, commands and pretty much anything else you can think of with each other and the AI. They are not individuals, but rather components of the larger whole, the ship they serve.
The story follows two timelines. In the current one Breq is alone, no longer a part of her ship. And because of that she must cope with having just one pair of eyes and just one body and mind. It’s as if she is adjusting to a missing limb, or rather becoming a detached limb that must somehow find a way to function independently. Her mission in this timeline is vengeance for the death of her ship. Vengeance for her death as she considers the ship herself.
In the flashback timeline we get the story that leads up to the death of her ship. In this timeline, we get not the individual Breq but the perspective of ancillary One Esk from the ship Justice of Toren. This is who/what Breq was before the destruction of Justice of Toren.
This is a very interesting perspective and had a much different feel from anything else I have read. And then to add to that, the Radchaai Empire does not recognize gender as we do, so citizen (and ancillaries) from there refer to everyone in the feminine form. The gender blindness/confusion really has more of an effect than I would have thought. It also makes me realize how even though we live in a culture that does differentiate the genders in speech my default at the beginning of this book was often male. I would be thrown a ‘her’ or a ‘she’ that would make me rethink that original assumption.
As I got further, I found myself trusting the ‘she’ and ‘her’ to mean it was a female character occasionally remember, oh … that character is actually male. And by the end of the book, I found I just quit thinking of gender altogether. People were just characters. So while initially I tried to keep the genders straight, eventually it really didn’t matter. Which in many ways is how it should be. Why should it matter if a character is male or female? Unless there is a love interest where characters have a preferred gender, it can often be irrelevant to the role the character serves. I have never read a book that has illustrated this point better.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. As was pointed out in our book club discussions, it really added to the alien feel of the story and world. I also like that it made me examine my own assumptions and defaults in regard to gender.
Also interesting was how the ship and ancillaries work together as one functioning unit. But it’s not just a central command center dictating what the ancillaries do. They each have their own thoughts that extend beyond themselves to other ancillaries. And each ancillary thinks of all ancillaries and the ship as itself. It’s definitely foreign to have the character perspective refer to doing a number of things inside of one paragraph that you know are in several different physical locations using more than one ancillary, but being referred to as just “I” in the point of view you are reading.
Between following the different timelines, and characters having the ability to be in multiple places at once (also the genders perhaps), there is much to keep track of in this. But Leckie handles it very well. This seems like a concept or style that could be quite confusing or frustrating for the reader, but it just worked.
When it comes down to it, I am just extremely impressed with Leckie’s ability to create such a world, and to pull off such an alien way of thinking and acting. It is an excellent piece of work and I highly recommend it.
This review was originally posted on Fantasy Faction.
Thanks to Orbit Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.