Thursday, 19 December 2013

Ancillary Justice - Book Review

Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren--a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose--to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

From debut author Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice is a stunning space opera that asks what it means to be human in a universe guided by artificial intelligence.
          (Synopsis from Goodreads)


This is a book that was quickly gaining a lot of hype and some incredibly good reviews, and so it moved right up my ‘to read’ list even before both online book clubs I’m a member of decided to choose it as their November pick. There was a lot to live up to – practically every review I read mentioned that this was bound to be nominated for all kinds of awards. Was it as good as everyone was saying? Yes!

Ancillary Justice just clicked with me. I loved the universe that the author created, the planets, the stations and ships, the characters, the plot – everything interested me. This is one of those books that I found impossible to read along with the book club; I couldn’t help reading on and finishing it ahead of time.

Everyone has been talking about the gender politics in the book, so let’s touch on that first. I thought this was handled really well, and not only provided a fascinating cultural backdrop for the story, but also challenged the reader, inviting us to examine our own relationship with gender. The people of the Radch just aren’t interested in whether a person is male or female, and so the story, told from the POV of a person who has grown up in the culture of the Radch, refers to everyone as ‘she’. How much does it really matter, how much does it affect the story, if we know a character’s gender or not? In this case, it doesn’t matter at all, and yet I would still find myself at certain points trying to assign gender to characters. It was also interesting to see how a culture like this might interact and think about the world.

This approach to gender added a fascinating and unique element to the book, without being as vital to the plot as the gender politics in something like The Left Hand of Darkness turn out to be. I liked this – sometimes it’s nice to explore something like this without it also being integral to the plot.

Speaking of The Left Hand of Darkness, I think there were some clear nods to it in this book – the frozen world at the beginning, the two characters thrown together learning to understand and accept each other... and in some ways the relationship between the two main characters mirrors that of Ai and Estraven, but interestingly in terms of class and citizenship rather than gender. The style of writing also reminded me a lot of Ursula le Guin. It is strong, controlled, perhaps a little distant at points, with an almost mythical feel to it that I adore. Again, this kind of writing just clicks with me, and I’m so pleased to have found another author to add to my favourites shelf.

The Radch, then, don’t discriminate based on gender, but they do find other ways to keep certain members of society down. The class politics are incredibly important in this story, as they are behind the split and changing ethos of the Radch empire. At the centre of this is Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radch and the person that the main character, Breq, is determined to assassinate. I thought the class politics, like the approach to gender, were conveyed so well, and there was a definite Roman feeling going on with the client-patron structure of Radch society – anything to do with Romans is always a bonus for me!

However, my absolute favourite thing about the book was how the author managed to show Breq as both human and not-quite-human at the same time. It is so hard to write an A.I. that truly feels like an A.I. and yet is also sympathetic and relatable to. Ann Leckie pulls this off perfectly. Breq often feels cold, slightly alien, distant... and yet she is driven, opinionated, and perhaps almost a little romantic about certain things. She is a wonderful character who I really enjoyed reading about. And then there is the fact that Breq both is and is not One Esk, and they are but are not Justice of Toren, the ship and the hive mind in control of all its ancillaries. Again, this is hard to pull off, that sense of individuals within a group mind, but it comes across so well here. Finally, the point of view stretched across several bodies is a brilliant touch in the early chapters. It’s a kind of first person voice of god, not like anything I’ve read before and intriguing without being confusing.

The plot itself is compelling and exciting, with just the right amount of world building, and flashback chapters that not only add so much to our understanding of the characters, but that turn out to be very important to what is happening later in the book. The pacing was very good, perhaps just drawing things together a little too quickly at the end, however. I liked the resolution of this particular story and look forward to seeing where the characters will go next.

A fantastic story with wonderfully written characters and several unique elements that make this a truly memorable read. I have to agree with other reviewers – this will surely turn up on award nomination lists next year!

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