Ancillary Justice has been on my TBR for a while, because books with prominent AI characters that aren't evil are my catnip. Then the whole thing with the Sad Puppies and the Hugo Awards blew up. Ancillary Justice was one of two works that kept coming up again and again as one of the works most hated by the Sad Puppies, so I suppose I should thank them for reminding me I hadn't read it yet.
Before I write anything else, I need to talk about one thing that no review of Ancillary Justice would be complete without: the gender thing. The Radchaai language doesn't have gendered pronouns, and the Radchaai have no real use for gender in their society, not even when it comes to reproduction. Breq, the main character, is Radchaai (although she would disagree with this) and thinks like one of them. However, the book is written in English. Leckie chose to communicate Breq's way of seeing gender by having her refer to everybody using feminine pronouns, even in those few cases where others confirmed for her that certain characters were male. I'll be sticking to feminine pronouns in my review as well.
Now for the summary. Twenty years ago, Breq was Justice of Toren, a Radch starship with hundreds of thousands of ancillaries, so-called “corpse soldiers” that could act as additional bodies for her. In between that time and the book's present, something happened to reduce her to just one lone ancillary segment. The only thing she wants is to locate a particular gun, convince its owner to part with it, and then use it to kill Anaander Mianaai, the supreme ruler of the Radch Empire. It's an impossible and suicidal goal, because Anaander Mianaai has thousands of bodies.
Along the way, Breq picks up a stray, a Radchaai named Seivarden who should have died a thousand years ago. Breq remembers her from when she was stationed on Justice of Toren, but she, of course, doesn't recognize her. She's a drug addict, and more trouble than she's probably worth, but Breq takes her along anyway. Not even Breq is sure why.
I loved this book, but it's definitely not for everyone, and the first half of it is a large part of the reason why. Approximately half the book was devoted to setting the stage: showing readers how the world worked, how Breq thought, what Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren was capable of, etc. Chapters in the book's present alternated with chapters 20 years in the past. Readers got to see Breq as both a fully functional One Esk (a 20-soldier part of Justice of Toren) and as the single being she somehow became.
In an effort to avoid giant infodumps about the world and Breq's motivation, Leckie gave readers bits and pieces. It felt like the world was being constructed out of many, many layers, some of which weren't apparent until after others had been added. This was sometimes very confusing. For example, Breq's early efforts to specify exactly which “myself” she was referring to seemed a bit odd, since all those parts were supposed to be one big whole. Did it really matter if she was talking about One Esk, or One Var (another 20-soldier part of Justice of Toren), or Justice of Toren? As it turned out, it did, although the reason wasn't made clear until well after I started wondering about it all.
My initial confusion was worth it, because it was wonderful when everything started to come together. And by “wonderful” I mean “gut-wrenching.” I loved the relationship between One Esk and Lieutenant Awn, and watching everything fall apart had me in tears. It also underscored how incredibly badass Breq was, to be able to survive it all, train herself to function in only a single body, and get as far as she did.
Which is not to say she was perfect. No matter how she looked, she wasn't human, and she had some enormous blind spots. The biggest one I noted was her lack of ability to accurately predict how others' emotions might affect a situation, sometimes with tragic consequences. As for her own emotions, she barely mentioned them unless they were noticeably impeding her performance.
I haven't talked about Seivarden much, but she was another character I came to love. Well, sort of. During much of the first half, Seivarden annoyed me, and I wondered why Breq didn't try to ditch her sooner. (My theory: Breq was actually lonelier than she realized, and Seivarden was the first link to her past she'd come across in 20 years.) Then Breq saved Seivarden, and Seivarden referred to Breq as “fucking capable” (219) and acknowledged that, despite the differences in their breeding, Breq was the more amazing of the two of them. After that, Seivarden basically became a one-person Breq fan club, not that Breq noticed (she thought Seivarden was waiting for the perfect opportunity to rob her blind).
I feel like I could write pages and pages more about this book – there were so many great details, like Breq not being a tea-drinker, even though tea is huge among the Radchaai, because tea is only for humans (sob). However, I'll just wrap things up and say that, overall, I loved Ancillary Justice. Yes, the first half was slow, but the payoff was worth it. I only wish the ending had been a little less messy. Anyway, I'm happy that I already have the second book on hand (yay for not regretting purchasing a sequel before finishing the first book), and I'd probably be starting it tonight if it weren't for the library book I have to finish ASAP.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Yukikaze (book) by Chohei Kambayashi, translated by Neil Nadelman - This is an English translation of a Japanese military science fiction novel. Like Ancillary Justice, it features a sentient AI, although this isn't immediately clear. I've written about this book.
- Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (book) Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu; Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (anime TV series) - A female warrior protects a young prince who is in danger of being assassinated because his existence may lead to a terrible drought. Breq reminded me a lot of Balsa. I suppose that would make Seivarden the young prince. I've written about both the book and the TV series. FYI, the anime is currently streaming on Netflix.
- Queen of Roses (e-book) by Elizabeth McCoy - Queen of Roses is completely different from Ancillary Justice in tone and general feel, but I figured I'd add it to the list because it's another good "AI as main character" story. I've written about this book.
- The Pride of Chanur (book) by C.J. Cherryh - I'm adding this specific book because it's the only one by Cherryh that I've read, but I imagine others by her might work as well. Something about Leckie's style reminded me of Cherryh. Maybe because they both did something a little unusual in their works, Leckie using feminine pronouns as the default, and Cherryh creating an alien race in which males are viewed as too emotionally volatile for space travel. I've written about this book.