the Little Red Reviewer

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Posted on: December 4, 2013

ancillaryAncillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

published October 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Orbit!)

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The mission of the Radchaai is to bring civilization to humanity. The word radchaai itself, means civilization, implying that anyone who isn’t Radchaai isn’t civilized. Their empire has always expanded, annexing colonies and planets, bringing civilization and culture to the far corners of the galaxy.  Those who resist are taken prisoner, and either destroyed or turned into corpse soldiers, to become ancillaries for the massive AIs that run the Radchaai ships.

Breq is one such AI.  Twenty years ago, Breq answered to the name One Esk, and was the ship AI for the ship Justice of Toren.  One Esk controlled and embodied thousands of ancillaries who ran the ship and served the human officers on board. Twenty years ago an annexation went horribly wrong, The Justice of Toren was destroyed, and Breq was left alone with only one human body, one set of ears, one brain, no friends or allies, and a burning hatred.

Breq is still trying to figure out what happened on Justice of Toren. Yes, it’s true, that ancillaries of the Radchaai supreme leader Anaander Mianaai secretly came aboard and swore One Esk to secrecy, and then possibly changed something in the AI’s memory banks. For twenty years, Breq has been looking for the single weapon that can get past the scanners, get past the security that surrounds Anaander Mianaai.  For the good of Radchaai, Breq is plotting to destroy the creator of their empire.

The blogosphere is much a-fire about this book. Author Ann Leckie should probably start looking at flights to London for next summer:

Ana: Dare I? I can’t really think of a single thing that is not right about the book. So Yeah: 10

Thea: 10 – Utter Perfection

- The Book Smugglers

This is a book to watch out for, and if it doesn’t garner the author a Hugo nomination, I’ll be very much surprised.

- A Dribble of Ink

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice does everything science fiction should do. It engages, it excites, and it challenges the way the reader views our world. . . . Ancillary Justice might be the best science fiction novel of this very young decade.

- Staffer’s Book Review

I feel like I read a completely different book from all those reviewers.  It wasn’t so much that I bounced right off Ancillary Justice, it’s more that my experience reading this book was akin to kissing a brick wall, and all I got was a bloody mouth for my trouble. This was not a gentle bouncing off.

If I hadn’t been committed to reviewing this book (seriously. Orbit sent me TWO copies), I wouldn’t have even finished it.  It got to the point where I was bribing myself to continue reading.   I found the pacing to be painfully slow, the dialog to often be so vague and wink-wink nudge-nudge as to be incomprehensible, the early worldbuilding to be infodumpy, and for a story presented in first person POV, I barely got any characterization out of the fragmented Breq, other than being told approximately a hundred times about a cherished love for singing and collecting music.

(My experience reading Ancillary Justice reminded me a little of my experience reading Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest.  Anyone else read that? anyone? Bueller?)

In the present day timeline, Breq has randomly found Seivarden, who has been in suspended animation for a thousand years. The drug addicted Seivarden is understandably flipped out because everything under the suns has changed in a thousand years – politics, slang, fashion, everything. Seivarden can barely understand a word most people are saying, and often has to rely on two thousand year old Breq to translate.  It’s too bad Breq wasn’t more interested in Seivarden, because that’s the character I was most interested in learning about.

Breq and Seivarden eventually find themselves on a Radchaai station, where they hope to gain an audience with Anaander.  There’s a beautiful scene where Breq visits a temple shrine, and the worldbuilding here is quite powerful. Why couldn’t have the rest of the book had such effective imagery?  There’s some great character interactions on the Station as well, with Breq trying to play the part of the idiot tourist. It was rather heartwarming, actually, Breq is finally in a place known as home, but has no idea how to enjoy it.  The first two thirds of the book were incredibly slow for me and I had trouble caring about or connecting with any of the characters, but the closer I got to the end, the more compelling the story became, and I finally got interested in all the “cool concepts” I’d been promised.

Leckie has pulled some interesting tricks with the Radchaai language. First, there’s the “aai” suffix that is on so many names, making them feel planned instead of random. Does “aai” mean “of”, or “from”? Not sure, but I always appreciate that attention to linguistic detail.

And then there is the language trick that has made this book so famous so fast, a trick that instantly rubbed me the wrong way.  The Radchaai language doesn’t use gender specified pronouns in the way we do (yet titles such as Lord and Sir are used).  The only gender terms their language has are what we would call feminine specifiers. Breq self identifies as female, and refers to everyone else (regardless of what gender they identify as) as “she”.  A Radchaai saying “that woman over there” is nearly the same as saying “that human over there”.  As far as I could tell, all children are referred to as daughters, all siblings are referred to as sisters. It’s not that one gender has been erased out of existence, it’s that the Radchaai, the civilized ones, simply only have the feminine words for it in their language.  Anyone who speaks otherwise isn’t Radchaai.

The idea, according to most reviewers, is to push the reader towards genderblindness. I can respect that, it’s a timely issue, one that’s hot in the community. But the whole genderblind language thing? It felt like a huge, massive, white elephant gimmick to me.  It rubbed me the wrong way, it pissed me off, I couldn’t get that gummy, sticky, gimmicky flavor out of my mouth.   Using gender signifiers such as she and her as often as possible wasn’t the way to make me (that’s me, personally) forget or skip over gender signifiers.  Want your reader to not care about the character’s gender or be confused about a characters gender?  Don’t identify a gender for the character when you first meet them, if at all.  Iain Banks did it. Kameron Hurley did it. I just did it, in the first half dozen paragraphs of this review.

It was a neat language trick, so it’s really too bad that my gut response was negative.  I get what Leckie was trying to do, really, I do. It was  unique and innovative and I’m happy a lot of people liked this book,  but it completely and utterly did not work for me.

I mean, Ancillary Justice would be getting just as much positive response if the Radchaai only had the male gender terms, right?

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43 Responses to "Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie"

I’m still reading my way through this one (it was supposed to be for a book club last month…) and… thank goodness I’m not the only one struggling. I’ll leave further comment for my own review, but… yeah. I’m dubious.

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let me know how you do with it, and tweet me when your review goes up. If it helps any, I started getting some clarity around 2/3 of the way through.

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I picked it up when it first came out and started it and was instantly put off by the gender issue. First, while I understand some of the feelings behind genderblindedness, I am not a fan of the overall idea. I think gender should be embraced and celebrated. Gender bias and gender stereotyping should be broken down not by eliminating gender from the conversation but instead rising above the gender issues that have plagued our existence. Fair or not this felt like a “gimmick” to me, and I am not a big fan of the gimmick. It instantly felt like the book was preaching to me and while I don’t mind getting a message from the books I’m reading, even sometimes a blatant message, I don’t want to be hit on the head with that message the moment I turn the first page.

I may still get back to this one, but I’m less enthused than I previously was.

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I think the point is that by clearing the plate of gender, you clear it of a lot of interruptors. That’s usually a good thing. The thing is, pointing out gender or non-gender in this way causes it’s own set of problems.

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I suppose that is possible, but I find it an interruptor in and of itself. For the majority of people we interact with daily identified gender is a part of the “conversation” and I find books that try to move beyond that to often be less than authentic. When an author does it with a character who is wholly alien it can work but then I still think we end up projecting a gender, if not our gender, onto that character.

Ultimately I don’t care, just want the author to tell a good story and I don’t want to have to work to overcome a gimmick or message the author is trying to incorporate into the story. Which is why it is risky to do it. Some can get away with it and it works beautifully, for others it does not. I guess I need to read more of Ancillary Justice to make a fair judgement.

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Oh, this was certainly Breq’s authentic experience. which makes it even more of a tragedy that I had to slog through so much “didn’t work for me”, because Breq goes through some mighty crazy shit.

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I can see what you are saying. I think that had the gender thing been the entire thrust of the book I may even agreed with you. But far more interesting to me was the deft way the author played with the ancillaries and their group mind, plus the idea of a villain with competing factions within her own mind.

And dang, two copies? Wish I could make Orbit like me enough to even send one.

Good review, always like to see opposite opinions on books so I know what I may have missed.

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I did really like the split personality aspect of a character who won’t be named (spoiler!), it was a surprise that depended on the neat technology in this world. Those scenes where Breq is giving the viewpoints of multiple ancillary bodies were damn cool as well, but I found many of them muddled and difficult to understand.

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I enjoyed it, but it definitely made you work to understand. I’m still not sure what the proper sex of half the cast was. Certain passages that were intended to reveal exactly what had happened to destroy Justice Of Torren I had to read three times before I was confident I pulled out all the information….I’m hoping the next one is a little smoother and better paced.

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A LOT of the scenes I had to read multiple times to pull out the useful information. I don’t mind putting in some work for a book (oh, hello Neal Stephenson and China Mieville!), but this apparently was too much for me. I’m pretty sure Seivarden was a male? and Anaander may have been male too? not sure.

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Seivarden was a male. That was my initial WTF? moment with the gender thing, when she states that he was a male and then continues to refer to him as “she.” I may have spent about five minutes trying to decide whether or not that was a typo…..Anaander, I have no idea. I pictured her as a female, but that was a default for every character unless there were indications otherwise. Side effect of the gender thing.

I think I gave the author/book a lot of grace based on the scope of the ambition of what was being attempted and how well she managed to pull it off–far from perfect, but pretty well considering the difficulty of what she was attempting.

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We are not alone! You brought up a lot of the issues I had with the novel, too. I love your parting shot:

I mean, Ancillary Justice would be getting just as much positive response if the Radchaai only had the male gender terms, right?

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and here I was, thinking I was alone!

yeah, I had some fun writing that line! ;)

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I mean, Ancillary Justice would be getting just as much positive response if the Radchaai only had the male gender terms, right?

Oh, for me, the language was only part of the worldbuilding and universe and technology that Leckie explores so well (for me, anyway). The language is a nice part of that, but not the entire package.

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I completely agree, that the language wasn’t the entire package. The technologies were hella cool, I’d love to spend more time on a Radchaai palace station, learn more about their history, etc. But I got all of that through the filter of the language, you know?

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We disagree yet again! :p
I need to write my review of this up, but keep getting dragged off on other tangents. I will only say re: the gender thing that I was amused by Breq being totally incapable of correctly identifying appropriate pronouns for people and getting in trouble because of it.

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“We disagree yet again!”
Dude, get your review up! so I can agree with you on certain points! ;) First point of agreement – Yes! it was amusing when Breq would get in trouble for using the wrong pronoun. I think the planet she and Seivarden started on perhaps had gender specific honorifics as well? She had to guess right, or they’d immediatly know she was from off planet. The Radchaai sort of cheat that a little bit, with just calling people “citizen”, which doesn’t seem to be a gendered term in their language. . . maybe, i think?

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I have to agree with you. I had to force myself to finish this. It just didn’t engage me.

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i should have saved myself a lot of trouble and given up after 50 pages.

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I read about 15 pages of An Evil Guest and gave up on it. Maybe I made it to 30 pages. Point is, it was a DNF as I fear this book would be.

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it didn’t get better. Plenty of clues showed up at the very end, and part of me wanted to read the book over again, to see all the things I missed at the beginning. I’m just not *that* much of a masochist.

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Aw! What a shame this was so bad for you. I’ve got it on my list — from the lady business review, naturally. :p I’ll try to temper my expectations going in. It’s always hard to go into a book with sky-high expectations, you know?

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“It’s always hard to go into a book with sky-high expectations, you know?”

ain’t that the truth! I’ve gotten really spoiled these last few years, enjoying lots of books that are highly hyped. So i felt burned on this one.

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Funny, now that you and Richard mention it, I read about 10 or so pages of Evil Guest when it came out and was mystified. I mean this was Gene Wolfe right? An author I really enjoy. Was very happy it was a library copy I was reading.

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i got reading Evil Guest because it was a book club book. We’d recently read The Sorcercer’s House and everyone seemed to enjoy that one (and I loved it), so Evil Guest had to be good, right? right? yeah…. NO. i ended up selling my paperback copy. Wolfe has a new book coming out, and it’ll be a library one for me, that’s for sure.

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This looked fairly interesting early on, but the more publicity it’s got, the less I’m sure I want to read it. Though I must admit that a large part of that is just snobbery on my part in wanting to turn left when everyone else seems to be turning right.

I’m midway though a masters in applied linguistics as well, which is fascinating, but I’m also finding that any overtly ‘linguistic’ commentary in novels just kills the suspension of disbelief for me as I immediately try to analyse it and it pulls me right our of the story. Might have to leave this one to the rest of you for a while.

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” in wanting to turn left when everyone else seems to be turning right.”
actually, I need to do that more often.

Have you read Embassytown by China Mieville? I recall that book having some cool linguistics discussion, you might get a kick out of it. I felt Leckie missed some opportunities in Ancillary Justice to really go all out crazy with language and make up some fun and useful words. there were a few scenes where Breq is talking about nuance and connotation in words in her language and in other languages, but then the reader is just given the word in english, and a lot of the nuance is lost. :(

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I’m partway through the book right now and I’m just so glad to know I’m not the only one who’s struggling with it. I’m quite enjoying the actual story, but the pronoun gimmick isn’t working for me either.

I can see why it’s so effective for people, but sadly it’s just leaving a really bad taste in my mouth. I’m still working out my thoughts on that. Right now they’re all muddled up, incoherent and filled with tangents. Hopefully I can sort them out into something shareable when I’ve finished it.

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you are not alone! Definitely let me know when you post an article about it, I’m interested in your thoughts.

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I will! It’ll take me a while, I think, since I’d ideally like to read The Left Hand of Darkness (and Le Guin’s commentary on it; I know she regrets the choice of pronoun she made, but that’s all I know) and Gender Shifts in the History of English, which is all about the way (third person) pronouns have evolved in English. Sounds like they’d be good companion reads at least. ^-^

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I got around to the article! I didn’t finish The Left Hand of Darkness before it, but reading that so close to Ancillary Justice was definitely an interesting experience and I hope to poke at the differences a bit over the holidays. Here are my ramblings if you’re still interested. ^_^

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I will be curious to see what I think of this one. I am waiting for it to arrive in the mail! Sometimes what works for everyone else utterly fails with me, so I am curious…

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I thought I was going to do okay with this one, because it’s space-opera-y, has crazy AI technologies, lots of things i usually like. When you get to reading this one, please do let me know how you do with it.

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Your review has made me want to read it, just to see if I like it. I like language, so I’m really curious about this. I wonder if it’ll be difficult for me to read, too.

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go for it! I like language, i just didn’t like the gimmickyness,

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I actually liked the gender slippage (I guess I’d call it), as well as the stately, careful pace and tone of the first two-thirds. My problem was more with the fact that she didn’t seem confident enough in that pace to take it all the way to the end of the book–so we spent the last third of the book frenetically running around a space station.

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“gender slippage” that is a very good term for it. and see, i liked the faster pace of the last third. i felt like i was finally getting somewhere, like something was finally happening. I really appreciated the worldbuilding that was on the station.

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What a great discussion – missed this one (think I might have been away). My conclusion though: don’t think this one is for me.
Lynn :D

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[…] gender was ever revealed. Perhaps predictably, some readers were displeased. It’s been seen as a gimmicky trick, which tries to clumsily to enforce “genderblindness.” I found it to be a brilliant, […]

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[…] gender was ever revealed. Perhaps predictably, some readers were displeased. It’s been seen as a gimmicky trick, which tries to clumsily to enforce “genderblindness.”  I found it to be a brilliant, […]

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just started
the she-form doesn’t distract me at all
but i wonder, if the story ll hover soon

(till now: ice planet, unfriendly natives, a corpse – not super-new)

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[…] gender was ever revealed. Perhaps predictably, some readers were displeased. It’s been seen as a gimmicky trick, which tries to clumsily to enforce “genderblindness.” I found it to be a brilliant, […]

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[…] Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (littleredreviewer.wordpress.com) […]

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