Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Posted December 4, 2013on:
published October 2013
where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Orbit!)
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?