Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie Two small spacecraft, one red and the other white, fly low over a much larger spaceship.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

After its release in 2013 Ancillary Justice swept away all the competition, winning just about every sci-fi literary prize worth having, including the 2014 Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards. It was on my ‘to read’ list for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed when I finally picked it up – this book lives up to the hype, remaining fresh and thought-provoking a decade on from publication.

There is so much to admire about this novel and Leckie makes brilliant use of the sci-fi genre to show us something different. The far-future setting takes place on the worlds conquered by the Radch, a (until recently) warmongering empire that now controls great swathes of the galaxy. Although the Radch is a human empire, the story is told from the perspective of one of their warships, the Justice of Toren.

The Radch are a sophisticated society, with a complex social hierarchy, elaborate tea ceremonies, an all-embracing religion and unrivalled technology. Their mission for thousands of years has been the expansion of their empire, conquering human worlds across the galaxy. The Radchaai blandly describe this as an ‘annexation’, making these worlds, to use another Radchaai phrase, ‘civilised’. Their interstellar warships mean victory is all but assured the moment they arrive in a new solar system. However, their most powerful weapon for controlling the population are their ancillaries – humans who are unwillingly slaved to the AI of the warship itself. They become physical extensions of the warship, making them deadly soldiers on the surface of the planet. Annexed populations chillingly refer to them as corpse soldiers.

The viewpoint character of Breq is one of these ancillaries – the sole surviving fragment of the warship Justice of Toren. This gives her a unique perspective, grieving for everything she has lost after the Justice of Toren is mysteriously destroyed, along with the rest of her ancillaries and the ship’s entire crew. Despite her human body, Breq finds human behaviour baffling at times. The fact the Radchaai language does not differentiate between the genders also makes for interesting interactions. Breq finds it difficult to distinguish the sex of those she meets in this vast empire, effectively removing the gender of other characters from most of the narrative. As a reader, seeing the world through Breq’s eyes, gender becomes irrelevant to the story, which is a fascinating premise.

The nature of Breq’s character provides some of the book’s most memorable passages, such as when Leckie is describing the action of a single incident from the multiple simultaneous viewpoints of Justice of Toren’s ancillaries. However, Breq is far more than just a machine. She’s a person in her own right, with favourites amongst her crew members. Most of these are lightly sketched in the story, although the character of Lieutenant Awn is particularly well-drawn. I also need to give Leckie credit for the novel’s antagonist. I don’t want to spoil this aspect for new readers but what I can say is the concept used here is simply amazing and really took me by surprise.

The only element of this novel that didn’t connect with me was the character of Seivarden. In contrast to Awn, Breq feels much more ambivalent towards Seivarden, pleased when they leave Justice of Toren to serve on another ship. After the loss of her vessel, Seivarden ends up in a suspension pod for a thousand years, finding she is unable to adjust to a changed Radchaai society when she is finally found and reawakened. There should be much to explore and enjoy with this idea but, rather like Breq, I failed to warm to Seivarden’s character – even at points in the novel when I felt like I really should. I finished the novel feeling like I was missing something.

Ancillary Justice is a novel of big concepts, amazing world-building and some great characters and I’ve found myself thinking about the story ever since I finished. I can see why it won so many awards but, on a personal level, I failed to fall completely in love with the story. In many ways, its conclusion left me feeling like this was the novel that sets up the situation, ready for the reader to launch into the rest of the series. That said, with so much to like, I’m planning to read the sequel, Ancillary Sword, later this year. If that novel builds on these excellent foundations then this series will be something truly special. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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Author: Tim Hardie

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