Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie


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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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Breq is an ancillary, an animated corpse possessed by the controlling intelligence of a vast starship, the Justice of Toren. The Justice was destroyed more than twenty years ago, with Breq as the sole survivor and the only person to hold a secret that could tear the interstellar empire known as the Radch apart. Breq, now driven by grief and vengeance, goes in search of the only weapon that can accomplish her goal.

Ancillary Justice is the debut novel by American author Ann Leckie, who has already established herself as a writer of short stories. It's an interesting SF novel which riffs on a whole load of ideas. The most striking is the one of identity. Breq is a tiny, splintered part of a much vaster, destroyed intelligence and has difficulties in relating to other people and the world around her. She's also effectively possessing a dead body and suffers from a cultural bias. The Radchaai do not believe in gender differentiation and go to some lengths to keep their gender unclear. The culture defaults to describing everyone in the feminine, resulting in odd moments when a character you've spent a dozen pages mentally picturing as female actually turns out to be male. This playing around with gender roles is not new - Ursula Le Guin did it rather more literally in The Left Hand of Darkness more than forty years ago - but it's something that relatively few SF authors have dealt with before and forces the reader to confront their own biases.

Those looking for in-depth worldbuilding and explanations for this SF universe will be left disappointed. There's little information on the amazingly powerful armour that protects the Radchaai, nor much on how their ships work. FTL travel gets relatively short shrift, and the only hint as to the fate of Earth is a single line about how it's a remote backwater. There is a slight inconsistency in that the Radch's tech level, though impressive, appears to be reasonably believable until someone casually throws it out there that they've also built a Dyson sphere, which seems beyond their capabilities. I daresay that the inevitable future books in the series (yes, there will be at least two more) will reveal more, but in this volume the author is focusing more on the immediate story at hand.

Structurally the book adopts a tried-and-tested technique of alternating between flashback chapters showing what happened to the Justice of Toren and why (and doing a good job of showing how massive events can unfold from the tiniest of causes), and events in the present day. Characterisation is reasonably strong, with Leckie showing how citizens of the Radch differ from one another whilst retaining the same cultural and religious traits. Breq herself is well-drawn, as the ship AIs in Leckie's setting are perfectly capable of having emotions and development (and indeed, Breq's actions are catalysed by what happens to one of her favourite crewmembers).

Whilst a lot of reviews are drawing comparisons with Le Guin, I was also reminded of the works of Iain Banks, particularly in the idea of living ships with their own goals and motivations and how they work when placed in humanoid bodies. What Leckie shares with both authors is more of a fascination with the social sciences than the hard ones, and also a belief in storytelling that also challenges the reader.

Ancillary Justice (****) is one of the most striking SF debuts of recent years. It's not perfect - the restrained prose sometimes risks stodginess and the opening chapters risk an almost Eriksonian level of confusion due to a lack of context for what the hell is going on (though this is still well-handled) - but ultimately the novel evolves into an intelligent take on gender roles and identity issues against a fascinating (if only hinted-at) SF backdrop. More please.


Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

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Breq, once a superintelligent AI controlling a vast starship, is now a reluctant agent of Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radch. Mianaai inhabits thousands of different bodies scattered across human space, but is now suffering from disassociation: two distinct factions have arisen in her multiplicity and are now waging war on one another. Aligned with one faction against the other, Breq is ordered to the remote planet Athoek and take steps to secure it against the opposition.

Ancillary Justice was released in 2013 and won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards the following year. A fine space opera novel which contained thematic musings on identity, consciousness and pre-existing biases, it was a striking debut, if one that was slightly overrated.

Being a success, of course the novel turned out to be the start of a trilogy. This is where things start to go wrong for Ancillary Sword. The Imperial Radch trilogy is what can be called a "fake trilogy", where Part 1 is self-contained (to some extent) to avoid too many unresolved plotlines if sales tank, whilst the remaining two parts form a much more closely-linked duology. The original Star Wars trilogy is a good example of that, and it's a reasonably common set-up in science fiction and fantasy which can work quite well (and arguably is better than "proper" trilogies with a single big story, where often the middle book feels surplus to requirements). However, it doesn't really work with Ancillary Sword.

This is a book which has very bizarre pacing. The entire novel, which is only 340 pages long in paperback, is laid back, chilled out, almost languorous. Breq travels on her starship to Athoek and meets lots of people and is nice to them, whilst carrying out observations of them from her unique perspective (a starship AI living in a single human body). The other characters are a mixture of interesting and bland, but the novel stubbornly refuses to engage in anything really approaching a plot or giving them anything interesting to do. A representative of an overwhelmingly powerful alien race is murdered, but this has no consequence (in this novel anyway). There's a lot of politicking and capital-building, both by Breq and her subordinates, and some of this is addressed in the novel but a lot of it isn't. At one point we learn of a mysterious "ghost gate" leading to an unknown star system where Breq suspects something is going on. She resolutely fails to follow up on this lead.

Ancillary Sword, it soon turns out, is almost nothing but set-up and pipe-laying for Ancillary Mercy, the third and concluding volume in the series. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is an issue when the book denudes itself of its own identity and storyline to benefit the later book in the series.

What the book does do quite well is character development, with Leckie also cleverly inverting the usual cliches of "AI wanting to be human" stories by having an AI become human and resolutely dislike the experience. By the end of the book Breq knows where she stands with regards to the government of Athoek and the administrators of the space station above it. The novel also makes some nods in the direction of themes such as colonialism, but treats the subject simplistically and superficially: no-one on Athoek but Breq has ever had the idea of treating the labourers fairly or even just enforcing the law on treating subject races well, apparently.

This is a slow-burning, SF-lite novel which feels like it is trying very hard to be a Lois McMaster Bujold book (who does this kind of comedy-of-manners, character-rooted story which holds back on violence and explosions with considerably less hype) but is undercut by also lacking the story and thematic elements that Bujold would include in her work effortlessly. If Ancillary Sword is anything, it's certainly not effortless: this is a turgidly-paced novel that took me five weeks to get through despite its modest length.

Still, Ancillary Mercy (**½) is a desperately slow and badly-paced novel rescued by some effective characterisation and ends with some plot developments that leave things in an intriguing place for Ancillary Mercy to resolve. How well it does so remains to be seen. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The Exchange

Happy I decided to stop reading the series after the first one. I'd actually say it was one of the most overrated SF books of recent years. While it has some mildly interesting concepts powering it, a slow and lackluster plot and underwhelming imagination in actually doing something good with the few ideas it had held it back. The main character was also drier than British humor, and the secondary characters uninteresting or unsympathetic or both.

To be blunt, I think that other than some fashionable politics, the book had very little merit.


Whereas, as I think I've said before, I found the "fashionable politics" far more understated than I'd expected from the hype and enjoyed the books on their own merits. I did find the split narrative of the first part of the first book to drag bit, but the climax made up for it.

I liked the world-building too, not just the gender stuff, but the ancillaries and AI ships and the uses they made of that tech.

The Exchange

thejeff wrote:

Whereas, as I think I've said before, I found the "fashionable politics" far more understated than I'd expected from the hype and enjoyed the books on their own merits. I did find the split narrative of the first part of the first book to drag bit, but the climax made up for it.

I liked the world-building too, not just the gender stuff, but the ancillaries and AI ships and the uses they made of that tech.

The AI ships and ancillaries are the best parts of the book for me. The rest of the book mostly had to do with colonialism and class inequality and such - fashionable politics. As you say, these parts as well as the gender stuff were quite understated, but my problem with them does not have to do with overtness of tone. Rather, they're just... there. Leckie simply doesn't do anything interesting with them, doesn't add anything meaningful to the discussion, and most importantly of all fails to make her SF ideas interact with her social ideas. The only true way the two meet is that Breq truly is incapable of conceptualizing gender because she was literally programmed that way, but that's it.

The result is just a shallow book with shallow ideas - or, perhaps, one so subtle I was not able to perceive any of its intended meanings.


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The rest of the book mostly had to do with colonialism and class inequality and such - fashionable politics

Well, those are universal and timeless themes which SFF is more than capable of grappling with in depth and intelligently. Ursula K. Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold have tackled such topics in a far superior manner to ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Le Guin also did the gender stuff far better in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, one of the taproot texts for the entire SF genre).

The problem I feel is that the first book sort of intermittently made interesting nods in this direction but little more than that and the second book didn't really engage with them at all.


I enjoyed this series.

I'd say the second and third book- which together form a story, they feel like one book split in half- do definitely engage on the colonialism and inequality angle, if much further in the process.

Also, the tech was cool. Comparatively minor, but the way the 'armor' worked and the consequences of combat and Breq's gun, and of course the Ancillaries themselves, not bad.

The Exchange

Werthead wrote:
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The rest of the book mostly had to do with colonialism and class inequality and such - fashionable politics

Well, those are universal and timeless themes which SFF is more than capable of grappling with in depth and intelligently. Ursula K. Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold have tackled such topics in a far superior manner to ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Le Guin also did the gender stuff far better in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, one of the taproot texts for the entire SF genre).

The problem I feel is that the first book sort of intermittently made interesting nods in this direction but little more than that and the second book didn't really engage with them at all.

Of course SFF is more than capable of tackling these issues - the politics are only fashionable in the sense that middle-upper class adults tend to have strong feelings on the subjects (while other political subjects go undiscussed - when have you lest read an SFF book that tackled the inherent tensions and problems of democracy, for example?).

And yeah, I agree with your sentiment fully.


Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

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Breq, the former starship AI-turned-military-officer, has secured the Atheok system and plans to wait out the civil war raging between the fragmented selves of Anaander Mianaai whilst investigating the ongoing mysterious events in the neighbouring Ghost system. But events will not wait for Breq and she soon discovers that the fates of everyone in the Atheok system may depend on what she does next.

Ancillary Justice was a refreshing, smart and interesting science fiction novel. Its sequel, Ancillary Sword, was a major letdown, a work that sprawled and felt at times that the author wasn't sure what direction to take the story. Ancillary Mercy, which concludes the trilogy, ranks somewhere inbetween. This is definitely a more directed, more focused work that rounds off the thematic elements of the trilogy more or less satisfyingly, but on a more prosaic plot level is less impressive.

On the character side of things, Mercy crystallises when Justice did so well and Sword occasionally struggled with: the interrogation of self, identity and self-realisation. Breq is a creation of the Imperial Radch, but she is not Radchaii and can view their culture from both outside and the perspective of one of its servants. The Radchaii believe they are civilised, but they are also intolerant and imperialistic, stamping their identity on the civilisations they encounter. They are baffled by the idea of ethnic and religious differences amongst their more newly-conquered subjects and resort to violence a little too readily. Breq - ironically - is a humanist who abhors violence when it can be avoided and seeks understanding and diplomatic resolutions to crises, which confuses a lot of her supposed "fellow" Radchaii.

This internal cultural examination is successful, but ultimately doesn't expand much beyond what we learned back in the first novel: the Radchaii should chill out and stop killing people, basically. Much more interesting is the examination of the nature of identity and the interrogation of the nature of both Breq and the other AIs. This leads to a bit of an unexpected plot twist that satisfyingly helps tie up the story at the end of the book.

That story, however, is not the story that many readers thought they were reading about: the war between the Anaander Mianaai clones. This doesn't really end or peak in the book, and carries on after the novel ends. On a thematic level this is quite understandable: the war has been going on clandestinely for a thousand years, so it being wrapped up neatly in three books covering a couple of years is unlikely. On a plot level, however, it can't help but feel that Leckie has left plot hooks dangling for future books (and more novels in the Radch setting are forthcoming), which is fine but feels perhaps a little disingenuous for a series marketed firmly as a trilogy.

At the end of the book there's a big climax and a smart and clever ending which makes the trilogy certainly feel worthwhile. It's an interesting, thought-provoking series. But it's also one that feels passive and inert for a lot of its time, with a huge amount of important stuff going on behind the scenes or resolutely off-page. It can make for a series that's hard to love but easier to admire and respect: Leckie is dealing with a lot of ideas here and doing so in a manner that's often quite subtle.

Ancillary Mercy (***½) is a worthwhile, humanist finale to the Imperial Radch trilogy, but it isn't the grand, epic and stirring ending that I think some people were expecting. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Provenance, the next novel in the Imperial Radch setting (but not a direct sequel to this trilogy), will be published on 26 September 2017.

Paizo Employee Managing Editor

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I loved these books so much. The themes of colonialism, minority rights, de facto slavery, complacency/unwillingness to rock the boat of those in power (rather than monolithic evil), etc. run through all three, getting more overtly central in books 2 & 3. I got the same feeling as Davia D that those two books felt more like two halves of a whole with the first book standing on its own more.

I also really enjoyed the notion of a music-obsessed ship AI using her ancillaries as a choir (and successfully got One Thousand Eggs stuck in Sutter's head :D). And it was unexpectedly relaxing to read sci fi that wasn't a dudefest—other than a couple characters who are gendered via in-world translation into languages with grammatical gender, you're free to imagine people as you will, and the physical descriptions of characters almost entirely support that.

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