Since news of the first book came out, I’d been looking forward to reading Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. From the beautiful (if generically sci-fi rather than plot-specific) covers by John Harris to the buzz over the protagonist’s confusion over gender grammatical and otherwise (an anthropological touch that I found very well done), it seemed like just the sort of sci-fi I would like. Took me way too long to get to it though–I always have way too many books going at once (there are
some many I started over a decade ago in the chaos of grad school that I haven’t been able to finish yet…), and between fun reading and work reading I just always have too much to cover–so Audible has been a Godsend lately, and I finally caught the series as an audio-book. I had a different narrator for the first book than for the other two–looks like you can get the same narrator for all three, so look into that if you go the audio route.
I am going to try to avoid a very in-depth review, since there are surely plenty of those already, and I don’t want to overdo the spoilers. I suppose my elevator-summary would be that this is a great far-future space opera, escapist fun at the same time that it brings intelligence and (let’s say) anthropological nuance to its world-building, plot, and character development. Some have pointed out a sort of kinship with Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though we should note that Leckie has stated that she had not read Banks until after her own work was well developed. The comparison occurred to myself as well, but it is a matter of family resemblance (late 20th/early 21st century New Space Opera), rather than clear and direct inspiration–far future cultures, prominent if not main characters who are the AIs for spaceships, politics dirty, idealistic, and otherwise at scales ranging from hyper-local to galactic, the complications inherent in dealing with alien species, etc. There are significant differences as well, in particular in the political settings for the stories. Banks’ Culture is a sort of Utopian projection of liberal ideals into a post-scarcity future and the problems the Culture encounters when interacting with those very different from it, whereas Leckie’s story is set in a militant, religious autocracy that dominates the human population of the galaxy, but has run up against some very strange aliens that far outstrip them in abilities. Leckie suggests reading the work of CJ Cherryh for a more accurate precedent, and regardless whether you find them similar or not I heartily second her recommendation.
The books follow Breq, the assumed name of the last remaining ancillary (human body integrated into the consciousness and control of the AI of a ship) of the troop carrier Justice of Toren (slight spoiler, but not much–this all becomes clear fairly early). The first book is woven of two threads, Breq’s present (and the contemporary storyline of the whole series) and past (the events that resulted in Breq being the last survivor), and I felt like this was very nicely done–I was a believer by the end of the book, at any rate. The two sequels are entirely rooted in the “present” and are a bit more connected as far as plot causality goes, so you could almost think of the trilogy as two books, the second one in two volumes (but don’t worry, the middle book has a complete plot arc).
Feminine pronouns are used throughout, regardless of gender, as the Radchaai (the culture Justice of Toren belongs to) does not distinguish between male and female either grammatically or socially. I felt this was believable and well-done, and a welcome bit of social speculation added to the far-future prognostication–and it proves an interesting bit of color for plot and character development when Breq is forced to deal with cultures that do distinguish (think of a “grammar-heavy” language like Icelandic, where the forms you use must change according to the gender of the person referred to). The gender-play of the book also ties in to the central plot points of Radchaai imperialism and the question of the personhood of AIs (check out this recent article at Strange Horizons for more on that as well on the ways the term “gender” is used with expanded range in contemporary discourse on the topic–though I suggest you wait till you’ve finished the trilogy). I can’t get into these threads too much without spoilers, but I will say that I liked how Breq’s development as/insistence on being a person and not a thing is done in a way that nicely emphasizes the intersubjectivity of personhood, with Breq’s own (somewhat deeply hidden and often grudging–Breq is BAMF AF) love and compassion infecting those around her (and incidentally, the ship AIs provide a nice opportunity to bring both BAMF and rather maternal characteristics together). The divided self, recognized as itself an inescapable part of subjectivity since at least Freud, if not the Apostle Paul, is also productively exploited, as the sheer complexity and extent of the transhuman intelligences in the story entails the possibility of more obviously divided selves–and this in turn provides opportunities to explore the ways in which the “self” is more an artifact of one’s place in a social network than it is some mystical singularity out of nowhere–and all this in ways that are essential to the plot and which make the whole thing more interesting.
It’s been a decade since I’ve read CS Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, but I was always fascinated by the way he seemed to gesture towards the interests of later Reception and Reader-Response theory. In particular he argues that there are two types of reading–reading that transforms us, and reading that is purely escapist and “fun.” Neither is necessarily morally superior to the other, and he suggests that this is more a factor of the way in which we come to a book, rather than something inherent to the book itself. But of course, the text is not absent–it is as much a part of the process as the reader (otherwise we are just projecting onto a blank screen), and a person will find some texts more challenging and difficult because they demand more of you (what texts work this way can vary depending on the person, of course), while others seem tailor-made for escapism (escapism not in-and-of itself a bad thing, in moderation–but I would suggest this is also where we tend to become more prone to masturbatory power-fantasies). Science fiction and fantasy at their best can sustain the tension between these two ways of reading quite well, and Leckie’s books, as well as many others I’ve reviewed here (Zen Cho, Lois McMaster Bujold, and short fiction from Rose Lemberg, Alyssa Wong, JY Yang, and others) do very well on this count. Highly recommended. 🙂