I’m nervous about reading the books “everyone” tells you to read. You know the ones. The books you ought to read. I get the unwarranted feeling that disappointment is inevitable and a bit of reverse psychology kicks in. So I put off reading Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch trilogy). It won awards, it garnered praise from authors I respected. It came up a lot in the science fiction and fantasy Twitterverse. And I still didn’t make the time to read it.
When I finally picked it up, the entire Imperial Radch Trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy) were all available. Thank goodness. Waiting would have been unbearable. Not because each book ended in cliffhangers, but because I missed the protagonist as soon as I put the book down. Like half a dozen characters in the book, I’d fallen for Breq’s efficient compassion, her clear understanding that right rarely gets a fanfare and her determination - in the face of inexorable failure - to try anyway.
So now, here I am, set with the impossible task of condensing gorgeous and punishing themes, a strange alien world and the rest of this deliberate, heartbreaking book into a short review.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. I wonder if Breq would agree with me.
Ancillary Justice follows two storylines. One concerns Breq and her quest for an alien weapon. Her ultimate goal is to kill the ruler of the Radch Empire, or at least, part of her.
The second concerns Justice of Toren who is a troop carrier and an artificial intelligence. Justice of Toren is vast, encompassing a spaceship and an army of ancillaries. Ancillaries are human bodies enslaved to the AI. They act as soldiers, aides, reference libraries, servants and more for the human commanders of the Radch military. They are extensions of Justice of Toren and there are thousands of them.
Justice of Toren’s story is about how it - an enormous AI with thousands of bodies - became Breq’s single body, how an army became one person and lost the better part of herself.
The Imperial Radch Trilogy is full of thoughtful turns of plot. It examines privilege, the nature of Empire and self-conflict. It’s not an orderly story. It’s full of wrongs that are unrightable. It admits that injustice is never neatly solved, that ingrained prejudice is not lightly overturned and that good intention does not make us moral.
As an example, before ancillaries are ancillaries, they are enemy combatants. Ancillaries are made from the bodies of enemies of the Radch military. They’re referred to as “corpse soldiers” throughout the book. Breq’s body was someone before it became part of Justice of Toren. They aren’t considered people. And Justice of Toren itself never had a choice when she was given ancillaries. As an AI, it was built to serve the Empire.
So is our protagonist an abomination? A person? A slave? A murderer? A zombie? A computer?
The trilogy doesn’t hold your hand. Reading it is like visiting a foreign country, with all the discomfort, wonder, surprise and self-reflection good traveling entails. As an example, Ancillary Justice simulates Radchaai - the predominant language used by Breq and the other characters. It’s a language that doesn’t recognize gender. To convey this, Leckie almost only uses “she” and “her” to refer to all her characters.
If you’ve no personal reason to be keenly aware of the gendered nature of the English language, or how much we rely on the unspoken question: “male or female?” in order to define people and characters in our minds, then this will be a mildly disorienting. And hopefully thought-provoking. I’ve been calling Breq “she” this whole review. How does that change what you think of her?
I’ve brushed the surface here, of what I think is wonderful about this book. I love the language and the novel’s perspective on gender, on complicity in oppression, and on what exactly it is that makes us human.
If you’re unsure why a book that sparks an examination and debate of our habits of assigning gender or our assumptions about heroic effectiveness or consent or privilege is a good thing to read, a healthy thing to read, then perhaps I can’t convince you that Ancillary Justice is worth your time.
But it is. It truly is.