February 4, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch, #1
Published: 2013, Orbit
Genre: Adult Science Fiction
Source: Library
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If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference, Lieutenant Skaait had said, and I had agreed. I still agree.
The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference. I’m not only speaking of the small actions that, cumulatively, over time, or in great numbers steer the course of events in ways too chaotic or subtle to trace. The single word that directs a person’s fate and ultimately the fates of those she comes in contact with is of course a common subject of entertainments and moralizing stories, but if everyone were to consider all the possible consequences of all one’s possible choices, no one would move a millimeter, or even dare to breathe for fear of the ultimate results.
...If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference. But absent near-omniscience there’s no way to know when that is. You can only make your best approximate calculation. You can only make your throw and try to puzzle out the results afterward.

Reading is an incredibly subjective experience. Objectively I understand that to be true. That doesn’t make it any easier, however, to find out that I could not really enjoy something that should have hit all the right buttons for me. Such was my experience reading Ancillary Justice, unfortunately.

Ghaiad Breq claims to be one of the Gerentate people. She has traveled to a distant planet far away from civilization in order to complete a mission. Although she’s reluctant to divulge the nature of her mission, it is a quest that has consumed her thoughts for nearly twenty years. And, finally, she can see an end in sight.

Honestly, the book’s synopsis says it best: “Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was.”

Breq is not really a Gerentate, physically, mentally, or emotionally. She’s actually the only remaining ancillary (essentially a semi-independent human body) of the Justice of Toren. The Justice of Toren was once a complete AI system the consciousness of a troop carrier and the thousands of ancillaries attached to it. Not only that, the Justice of Toren was a very important AI system for the Radch empire and assisted with the annexation of the city of Ors on the planet Shis’urna.

The annexation seemed to be going well until suddenly it was not. Something happened on Ors that caused the Justice of Toren to lose everything except for a sole ancillary. The former Justice of Toren is no longer what she once was, and because of that she seeks retribution.

The distant, overly formal writing style, focus on politics, and epic worldbuilding reminded me slightly of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I am not familiar with many science fiction works, so I’m sure there are more apt examples than this. Still, though, the sheer scale and grandeur of Ancillary Justice is nothing short of impressive. Although my personal reading experience was slightly disappointing, there are so many good things going on in this book, and they’re worth mentioning.

First of all, I loved the fact that the protagonist is an AI system whose main “body” is a spaceship. I suppose there are other books out there that focus on AI systems, but I haven’t heard of any like this. The Justice of Toren’s/Breq’s characterization is subtle for the most part, which makes having a story told from her perspective a tiny bit frustrating, but also very, very fascinating.

Because she’s an omnipresent being, it’s difficult to pin down specific descriptors of the Justice of Toren/Breq. She is a loyal vessel of the Radch empire, until certain events cause her to question her loyalty and morality. She’s not invincible (although she has thousands of bodies worth of protection). She’s not all-knowing. She’s not even human, and is subsequently treated as something different (in many cases as something inferior) by her colleagues. Breq’s main sense of identification comes from her interconnectedness among her many bodies. Many times throughout the text she explains how, as One Esk of the Esk unit she is doing one thing, while at the same time she is the Justice of Toren (the ship), and also One Var of the Var unit, among others.

The biggest issue I had with this book actually relates to Breq’s characterization, however. As a general rule, books that “tell” their readers far more than they “show” tend to be the product of subpar writing. That’s not quite the case here, as readers learn Breq’s story through her analytical, artificially-controlled mind. In that respect, I think that the narrative style is perfect. As a reader, however, the distant, overly formal writing style prevented me from connecting with Breq and her story to the degree that I had hoped I would.

For a story about vengeance, first and foremost, Ancillary Justice felt incredibly slow moving at times. Time doesn’t matter as much for the Justice of Toren, who is thousands of years old. And as Breq, our protagonist has spent nearly twenty years plotting her revenge. But it read like a book quite a bit longer than its 400 pages. The story alternates between the events in Ors leading up to the big event that harmed the Radch empire, also destroying all of the Justice of Toren’s bodies save one and the events leading up to the end of Breq’s quest to find and harm Anaander Mianaai, the lord of Radch. There’s a fair amount of suspense in both narratives, but the suspense is by and large achieved primarily through a sense of foreboding.

In the Radch civilization, there are no divisions between genders and gender is not a concept worthy of recognition. When speaking in a non-native tongue, the Radchaai tend to refer to everyone as “she,” regardless of their sex. While Breq is on non-Radch planets, she’s constantly aware that gender does matter in other cultures and second-guesses her use of gender-specific words.

It is this aspect of the book in particular that really made me wish I could have read it for a class and deconstructed its meanings with a group. Out of all the characters mentioned in this book, I’m only certain of the gender of two of them. Two out of dozens. I alternated between accepting a character as a female and really spending time analyzing the text for hints as to whether the character was actually male or female. And you know what? My understanding of the book didn’t suffer for not being able to easily deduce the characters into our traditionally-upheld gender classifications.

There’s so very much to unpack in this book, and I feel like Leckie has explored only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the characters and their worlds. Although the main plot of Ancillary Justice wrapped up quite well, I do think certain elements of this story lend themselves well to further stories. Perhaps I’ll even read them. Reading Ancillary Justice may have dragged for me at times, but now that I have this foundation set up, I might have an easier time transitioning into Leckie’s further installments in this series.

I would recommend this to those who like both the science fiction genre and more thought-provoking works of fiction. In spite of my issues with this book, I do have to commend Leckie on writing a rather memorable story; it’s not one I’m likely to forget any time soon.

Rating: 3 stars

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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I'm sorry this didn't completely work for you. It sounds really complicated for the likes of me so I think I will be passing on it. Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts!

    1. Yeah, I'm sorry too. Oh well. It was an interesting reading experience, though, for sure! Thanks, Sara!

  2. Aww, I'm sorry to hear you didn't love this one! I've been hearing a bit about it and had high expectations, but I think I'll go into it expecting a little less now. Thanks for your honest thoughts, Amanda!

    1. I think if my expectations had been a bit lowered, I might have had even more difficulty getting through it if I hadn't heard how brilliant it was. So I'm not sure. It's definitely worth a read, though! Thanks, Keertana!


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