Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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October 1, 2013

An electronic copy of Ancillary Justice was provided by the publisher. Additionally, me and the author are Twitter-friends.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is one hell of a debut novel. It’s unexpected, incredibly readable, and all around awesome.

I should probably break that down a bit.  First of all, what’s the book about? It’s about a person named Breq who used to be a spaceship, Justice of Toren. She’s not a spaceship anymore, though–she’s just an ancillary.

And what’s an ancillary? An ancillary is a human body inhabited by the artificial intelligence–in the slang of one of the worlds, a “corpse soldier”. It’s not clear to me if the original inhabitant of the body is flushed when preserved for ancillary usage or later, when being connected to the AI–the text is a bit ambiguous on this and I have the awful suspicion that the original inhabitant is left in suspension for however long it takes–possibly thousands of years–to be hooked up to the AI. I’m basing this mainly on the way Breq–or rather–Justice of Toren One Esk reacts when a new ancillary is activated.

The whole ancillary system is awful. Horrifying. The best words for it and the system of annexations that the Radch embark on is “war crimes”. And yet we still have sympathy for it because Breq, the last remaining piece of Justice of Toren, is so human. Even though she insists, through the entire book, that she is not a person but a piece of equipment (is she capital? does she depreciate? what’s her net book value?).

Anyhow, Breq has a mission. She wants to kill Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, and in order to do so, she needs a weapon. A very specific weapon, the only one of its kind, an artifact of the only failed annexation of a thousand years past.

This story is told in alternating chapters–Breq’s current quest to acquire the Garseddai gun as well as the events on Shis’urna that lead to the destruction of the Justice of Toren. I’m normally not a fan of this type of narrative structure because usually one half of the narrative is more interesting than the other, but this is not the case here–both parts of the narrative are equally compelling and the structure leads to a lot of momentum and tension. I especially loved the way Leckie handled the point of view–if you have twenty sets of eyes, then of course you would have twenty overlapping first person perspectives. It takes a bit to get used to, but once you get the rhythm it makes perfect sense.

There are civilizations that are thousands of years old, there are mysterious aliens, and there’s singing–Breq is a ship who sings and oh, how much do I love that?  This is a book about colonization, war crimes, cultures divided and at secret war with themselves, and what it means to be a person–and at its heart is this amazing character, Breq.

And I haven’t even gotten into the worldbuilding. We see three different cultures directly and hints of at least two others and they have a surprisingly solid feel to them. They feel coherent and irrational in ways that cultures often are (what is the deal with the Radch and the gloves? the text never tells us, it is just a Thing that is done).

Because this is told from the perspective of someone who came from the Radch we also are immersed in the Radch’s rejection of gendered language–everyone is she or her which is just such an interesting decision on Leckie’s part and one that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he and him is not a gender-neutral choice, at least for me it did. Even when it’s clear that some characters have male bodies (like Seivarden), the use of she and her makes them seem more feminine and we don’t actually know for sure what sort of body Breq has, we just know that this segment of Justice of Toren One Esk has a raspy voice which is a bit heartbreaking to learn considering how much she likes to sing. The singing also plays a crucial role in the plot, it’s not just an eccentricity.

This is a wonderful book. It’s the kind of space opera I love to read and it hits one thing I really enjoy in my science fiction: sentient technology.  Let me put it this way: even though I received a free electronic copy of this book, I’ve also purchased a paper copy for my library because I’m going to want to read this over and over again (and possibly make notes and draw hearts in the margins). I know that this review is massively disjointed; for more coherent ones I point you to Liz Bourke’s at Tor.com and Annalee Newitz’s at io9.

I’m also in the midst of making a playlist of music by or about sentient tech. Some of these songs were suggested by folks on Twitter, three of them are songs actually referenced in the book, and others are ones I’ve been fond of for years now. Enjoy!

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11 Comments

  1. Merrian

    I bought this book just today. Author is Australian I think. Will report back when I have read.

  2. Renay

    I’m so excited about this book! \o/

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Renay, it is SO FREAKING GOOD. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

      Merrian, I don’t know if the author is Australian or not–I do know she lives in the US now, though.

  3. Barb in Maryland

    I have 3 favorite ‘sentient ship/ is an AI a person?’ books/series. The first is David Weber’s “Path of the Fury” from 1992. (or the expanded version “In Fury Born” 2005). Next are “Ghost Ship” and “Dragon Ship” by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (part of their Liadan Universe series). And lastly, Mark L Van Name’s Jon and Lobo series–Lobo being a very, very sentient ship.
    Looks like I may be adding a 4th title to my short list. I’ve had it on my ‘want list’ for a while now. I am happy to be seeing so many good reports. Thanks, Natalie, for the thorough review.
    ps Today Ann Leckie is doing the Big Idea post over on ‘Whatever’ (John Scalzi’s blog). Go read if you haven’t already. Absolutely fascinating!

  4. Selki

    I put it in my shopping cart (waiting until I hit $25 for free shipping), looks fun.
    I haven’t heard many of the songs on your playlist beyond the first and “Starships Were Meant To Fly”. The last one, Still Alive? seemed familiar, though. Does it ref a particular fandom?

  5. Natalie Luhrs

    @Barb in Maryland: Added to my reading list! Yay sentient ships! I’m really happy to see all the good reviews, too–it’s so rare that an SF book gets this much enthusiasm. It’s really an extraordinary debut novel and I cannot WAIT to see what happens next.

    @Selki: It’s the song that plays over the credits to Portal–composed by Jonathan Coulton.

  6. Merrian

    Finished AJ last night and loved it. The semi-linear narrative that jumps around in time and POV worked really well for me as a way of revealing the questions of identity at the heart of the story. The end notes talk about the musical inspiration for Justice of Toren’s singing and 3 of the songs that are in the story are real life ones.
    Clamanda

    http://www.shapenote.net/berkley/047%20Clamanda.pdf

    Bunker Hill

    Am also thinking about the notion that arose for me of a country/worldview/person who is continually at war with the other (however that is defined) being actually and always at war with themselves and the poignancy of the remnants of conquered cultures decorating the decade mess halls on the ships and the limits and extremes of total surveillence.

    Loved how Lieutenant Awn’s good heart matters in the many years after the events on Shis’urna. Even with the coincidences in the closing pages (sort of in all of the gin joints in all of the world…) I loved that Breq Justice of Toren One Esk has rage at the unfairness and unjust world that is the Radch but that her actions are always motivated by what she loves and her relationships; that’s actually very Bujoldian. Wonder if we will get into the heart of the Radch, their Dyson Sphere in the next books?

  7. Selki

    Removed it from my Amazon shopping cart, b/c LibraryThing tells me I’ll get an Early (?) Reviewer’s copy in 4-8 weeks! I’m looking forward to the shape note singing parts, too; hadn’t run across any mention of that in reviews.

  8. Maladroit

    “Breq is a ship who sings and oh, how much do I love that? ”
    I’m new to your site, so this may be covered elsewhere, but does anyone else remember “The Ship Who Sang” from Anne McCaffrey?
    Looking forward to reading “Ancillary Justice.”

  9. Natalie Luhrs

    @Maladroit: Indeed I am familiar with McCaffrey’s book–I loved that series of stories when I was younger. I haven’t read them in a long time because I am scared that the Suck Fairy has gotten into them.

  10. Anthony Chambers

    I just finished this book. Wow! Great read.

    This comment by Natalie, “…Because this is told from the perspective of someone who came from the Radch we also are immersed in the Radch’s rejection of gendered language–everyone is she or her which is just such an interesting decision on Leckie’s part and one that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he and him is not a gender-neutral choice, at least for me it did. Even when it’s clear that some characters have male bodies (like Seivarden), the use of she and her makes them seem more feminine and we don’t actually know for sure what sort of body Breq has..” is dead on!

    Really very innovative by the author!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie | Jorrie Spencer - […] Radish Reviews ”There are civilizations that are thousands of years old, there are mysterious aliens, and […]
  2. Obligatory Hugo Nomination Reaction Post — The Radish. - […] this year, which is AWESOME. My favorite novel and short story from last year were nominated (Ancillary Justice and…

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