Updated on November 3, 2017
44. ‘Ancillary Justice’ by Ann Leckie
I picked up Ancillary Justice at my Mr B’s reading spa in Bath. It came highly recommended, especially because it has won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. That’s a pretty clean sweep for a sci-fi novel!
Ancillary Justice is the first book in a trilogy which centres around Breq, a human who is part of the Radch Empire, the main purpose of which has always been to take over other planets and expand its reach. The Radchaai do this by going to planets and subduing the population using violence, and also by recruiting local inhabitants to be ‘ancillaries’. These ancillaries, when awoken from a sort of cryo-sleep, essentially have their consciousnesses co-opted by a large spaceship (for example, Breq was once a single body controlled by the starship Justice of Toren), turning them into a hive-mind of soldiers. As for Breq, she now contains the entire consciousness of Justice of Toren, after a fatal plot destroyed the starship and all its other ancillaries. As the only living survivor, Breq is on the hunt for the people who have forced her to live for 19 years in a single body. She is joined by Seivarden, an officer who once worked aboard Justice of Toren but has been frozen in cryo-sleep for a thousand years.
As you can tell from that description, this is not an easy read. You probably won’t race through Ancillary Justice; I found myself having to concentrate quite hard to keep up with both the plot and the characters. You can’t fault Leckie’s ambition – this is a massively complex but extremely well thought out story, and although I couldn’t always keep up, I could tell that the fault was my own and not that of the world Leckie has created.
An interesting thing to note about the character of Breq/Justice of Toren is that this character’s starship-consciousness cannot distinguish between human genders, and so all the characters are referred to as ‘she’ (unless somebody else points out what gender they are). At first I thought this might get confusing, but in the end I stopped noticing it and it felt quite natural. (And why shouldn’t it? After all, there are plenty of other books that feature almost exclusively men or women.) I thought it was a very interesting touch that really enhanced the ‘alien’ nature of the protagonist.
To begin with the story alternates between the ‘present day’, with Breq and Seivarden on their quest for revenge, and an event in the past which set the current events in motion. At its heart this is a fairly straightforward adventure story – find the weapon, get to the enemy, kill them – albeit quite a slow-paced one. That’s necessary, of course, to get across all the complexities of the plot and the characters’ motivations, and I appreciated that Leckie really took the time to craft her world. She delves into some extremely interesting world-building too, creating several alien planets and civilisations that are so rich and detailed that you can’t help but believe in them.
But Ancillary Justice could never simply be described as ‘straightforward’. For me, the story was just a bit too complex. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the book, because it was quite hard work. I was impressed by it, certainly, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the others.
“You’re born assuming that someone else is paying the cost of your life.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.