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