Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ancillary Justice Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit
Genre: Space Opera
Series: Imperial Radch Book One
Pages: 384

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Thematically speaking, Ancillary Justice feels like an inverted retelling of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or a story told from the perspective of the Nexus-6 Replicants, and that is a story I have wished to read for a long time.  Ann Leckie owes a lot to the great science fiction authors that came before, but she also acclimates readers to some strange new characterizations – some of which can be pretty disorienting to readers, especially if you’re not familiar with science fiction.

Ancillary Justice is a book that provokes thoughtful discussion about the consequences of following orders, the actions that define your identity, while asking the age old question: what does it mean to be human? It’s lead character Justice of Toren/One Esk/Breq will likely go down as one of science fiction’s most unique, emotional, and conflicted narrators.  Simply put, this is one of the best space opera’s to come out in a long time.

Ancillary Justice jumps back and forth from past and present while being narrated by Justice of Toren/One Esk/Breq.  In the present Breq is an ancillary that wishes to enact revenge against Anaander Mianaai the ruler of the Radchaai Empire, the most powerful human force in the universe.  As Breq looks to fulfull her goal, her past as Justice of Toren, a giant starship, and one of the thousands of ancillaries that were consciously connected to her named One Esk, is revealed.

If that plot synopsis confuses you, it should.  Ancillary Justice is narrated by one conscience with multiple identities. In the present Breq is a lot less powerful than she used to be, because in her past she inhabited thousands of bodies.  She claims she has difficulty interacting with humans, but time after time readers see her engaging in a caring manner with humans.  Breq also exhibits a lot of emotion, and her driving motivator – revenge – is an all too human feeling.

At the same time Breq has difficulty distinguishing the differences between genders.  Every person she see’s is female, and only when she’s talking to other characters much later in the book do we find that character’s that Breq was talking about were in fact male.  It forces readers to see characters without a gender distinction and it’s a nifty literary trick and eye opening experience.

Leckie in general avoids human descriptions, almost exclusively, throughout the novel.  That means no descriptions of hair, eyes, and other distinct human features.  There are distinctions between ages, but that’s about it.  The lack of human descriptions though force readers to examine humanity not by what they see, but by what they feel towards the characters actions and emotional judgments.  Again, like the issue with gender, it’s an experience, and really gets the reader to question how they judge the world around them.

The world building is strong, the Radchaai culture and values are clearly established and they set up a lot of conflict about the consequences of following orders. The major secondary characters – Seivarden, Awn, and Skaaiat are all very well written. Anaander Mianaai can be as confusing as Breq, but she eventually establishes why she’s such an indomitable antagonist.

There is not much to dislike about this book.  The only issues were the prose, which was iffy at times and there were a few coincidences that require a greater suspension of disbelief. Characters from the past showing up in such a large universe feel like conveniences for the plot rather than a natural succession of events. I also wish the ending made a bigger impact, after all that build up it was still a good ending, but I was expecting more emotionally.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent debut novel by Ann Leckie.  Fans of science fiction will enjoy this story, but people who aren’t used to science fiction may find this book challenging, especially in the beginning.  It does get easier to understand as it goes on.  Above all if you’re looking for a more thoughtful book, with a unique narrator, Ancillary Justice is your answer.

Score: 9.2

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