Ancillary Justice Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 1/10)

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice

(Imperial Radch #1)
By: Ann Leckie
First published in 2013
Book 1/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

Ancillary Justice mixes big concepts with an easy to read narrative voice and engaging characters. It is a marvelously assured and ambitious debut novel.

The main character Breq used to be a spaceship: an AI who consisted of thousands of formerly human bodies. She was the ship, the ship’s maintenance crew and some of its soldier force – these bodies animated by the AI were sometimes called “corpse soldiers”. The captains and lieutenants on the ship, though, were living people from the Radch Empire. At the beginning of the book, Breq is just Breq: a mind in one body, and we are taken on a journey to learn what caused this, and what she will do next.

I do not have a long history as a science fiction reader, and this book is often quoted as being difficult to grasp, especially for SF newbies. I didn’t find the book to as difficult as I had been made to expect. Perhaps it was because: 1) I knew beforehand that the main character used to be a spaceship AI with one mind and many bodies, and the fact that the spaceship uses ‘she’ as a third person pronoun for everyone, 2) I’m Finnish and we also have just one third person pronoun (“hän”, for both genders), 3) I had warmed up my science fiction reading with Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Flambeur trilogy, filled with notoriously difficult language.

Ancillary Justice was a thrilling story – at one point I had to put the book down to cool off, ’cause I was so afraid of everything that could go wrong, but then had to pick it up again and finish it, ’cause I really did want to know what would happen! While being thrilling, it also managed to be dialogue-heavy and character-focused. I thought the book had a good balance.

I remember smiling at a review I read on Amazon, which was basically, and I quote “no epic descriptions, no space battles, just lots of cups of tea!” and thinking: that sounds amazing! Characters sitting around drinking tea! I guess if that bothers you, this might not be the book for you, but I have to say that there are some spaceships and revenge and excitement, also.

To me, the characters felt alive. Breq was a great main character, and it was interesting to see how she reacted to and dealt with different people. I was interested in her trudge through the snow with her unwilling companion Seivarden, Seivarden’s moods, and Breq’s past with Lieutenant Awn – a character I especially loved. I was surprised to learn that I was more emotionally invested in the book than I had thought when I spontaneously teared up at one point.

I’ve heard some people say that this book is only popular because of what they call “the gender thing”, but I can’t help but think that those people haven’t actually read the book. Gender isn’t a big part of the story; the main character just uses the pronoun “she” because her culture doesn’t have separate pronouns (like Finnish). Her culture also doesn’t have many outer differences between the sexes, and since different alien cultures have different gender cues, she gets easily confused. The “gender thing” is only a big deal in our world, because we have the presupposition for characters to be male. So the author could’ve written that the main character only used the “he” pronoun, but that wouldn’t have produced the same effect, since people are used to expecting people to be male unless stated otherwise.

Ancillary Justice was exciting and engaging while also being character focused. It combined great ideas with a quest/adventure plot. It just pulled everything off, and was a fantastic read.

5 out of 5 stars


Review: Ascension


(A Tangled Axon novel)
By: Jacqueline Koyanagi
Genre: Space opera
First published in 2013

Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spirit guide sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego… and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her.

Ascension is a debut science fiction adventure novel with some storytelling issues that are balanced by great characters and a sense of fun.

Alana Quick would love nothing more than to leave the dust of her planet behind and experience life in space, something she has been dreaming of since she was a kid. Her chance comes when the spaceship Tangled Axon lands on the yard of her workshop, looking for her spirit guide sister, and Alana decides to stow away. When the characters are forced to try to live together and get along, the result is both personality clashes and budding friendships.

I loved the main character. Alana is a sky surgeon (a spaceship mechanic) with an autoimmune disease which causes her chronic pain. Without medication, it would leave her incapable to do the job she loves, and would eventually kill her. Her disorder is never conveniently forgotten – it permeates the whole novel like it permeates Alana’s life – but the book is not about her disability. It’s just a constant presence.

The most interesting thing about Alana is her passion for spaceships. She really loves them, and has a sort of a sixth sense in being able to feel the ships and tell what is wrong with them. This skill might be part of the same ability that makes her sister a spirit guide, except her powers work with people, Alana’s with machines.

Alana’s relationship with her sister Nova was my favourite character relationship in the book. While Alana is in chronic pain and wants to live her life to the fullest with the body that she has, her healthy sister would love nothing more than leave her body behind and live as pure spirit. They struggle to understand each other, but they do love each other. There’s also a budding romance between Alana and the captain of the spaceship. I’m a reader who doesn’t really care for that much romance in my books, and there was a decent amount of it in this one, but it was not a deal breaker for me.

Ascension is a debut novel and felt a bit uneven at times, pacing and plot-wise. I liked the first half, getting to know the Tangled Axon’s crew, a lot more than the second half with the actual plot developments spiced with some philosophical musings. The first half managed to evoke that Firefly feel of different people learning to live together. The ending didn’t do much for me.

I wasn’t really swept away with the plot or any of the bigger reveals. I felt like they weren’t given enough emphasis, so they didn’t have an impact on me. Sometimes I was left wondering “So what does that mean?” The main character might muse on some relatively smaller aspects of her journey for much longer than she would dwell on the larger reveals.

I would recommend this book if you feel like reading a space adventure with a likeable main character and a focus on character relationships, if you don’t mind romance, a lot of inner monologues and some debut author unevenness. I will be checking out whatever Koyanagi writes next.

3 out of 5 stars