Book Review: Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie’s book debut has become one of the most celebrated science fiction books of all times.  Having won almost all the important awards, including Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Clarke and BSFA among others, Ancillary Justice became by definition one of the most overrated modern science fiction books.  This is not necessarily bad, but it can play to the novel’s disadvantage: readers’ expectations will be sky high, and they may be disappointed, even if it is a solid story.  Unfortunately, I found this book to be average at best.  Despite very good writing and refreshingly original elements, I found the characters unlikeable and the story so stale that I lost any interest in continuing reading the series.

Leckie spins a compelling world in her book.  The universe, or at least our galactic neighborhood, is ruled by an empire that had been in existence for thousands of years.  It conquers and assimilates entire star systems, and it appears to have no opposition.  The bulk of the old military forces comprises of large troop carriers, which contain hundreds or thousands of zombified soldiers in hibernation who share their consciousness with the ship’s A.I. when they are activated.  They serve as military and occupation forces on conquered planets.

The narrator of the story is Breq, one such soldier.  In the book Breq tells two stories: one in the past, where she was part of a contingent on a newly conquered planet, and a present one, where she’s on a quest of revenge.  While on the planet, her commander Lieutenant Awn gets tangled into a plot to destabilize the planet, and by trying to resolve it falls into disfavor with the emperor, Anaander Mianaai.  The emperor has her killed, and when the ship revolts, Mianaai has the ship destroyed.  Breq is the only survivor, now bent on killing the emperor.

In the present, Breq is on a quest to find a specific weapon, which can be smuggled into the presence of Mianaai.  Throughout her voyage, she meets and rescues a former officer of the ship, Seivarden, with whom she forms a tentative friendship.  Even though she finds the weapon she’s been looking for, she knows that killing the emperor will not be possible: Mianaai is a distributed consciousness, inhabiting thousands of bodies and spread throughout the galaxy.

There are things Leckie has done really well.  First of all, I liked the setting, especially the concept of distributed consciousness.  The author describes it in great detail, dedicating large portions of text to describe the simultaneous audiovisual inputs and actions of a large contingent of soldiers, all sharing the ship’s mind.  Later, when Breq is isolated, that isolation from other soldiers’ input is palpable.  Another strong point of the novel is Leckie’s superb writing.  The description of the consciousness, various planets and cultures, as well as the history of the empire flow effortlessly in the book, as Leckie avoided lengthy, boring explanations.  It is also apparent the author spent a lot of time creating her world to the smallest detail, and many such details can be only barely gleamed from the rich text.

Despite some original ideas and the excellent writing style, however, I did not find the book compelling.  Let me start with the elephant in the room: the use of pronouns.  It appears that everyone in the book is a woman, as Breq only uses the “she” pronoun.  Later, after I finished the book, I did a little research on-line and found that Leckie introduced a universal pronoun, and that the characters in the book were of both genders.  I was not able to understand this from the book, not only because of the pronoun, but also because the interpersonal relationships were very awkward.  There are no gender dynamics, other than the presence of a children, but only on “backward” planets.  In addition, there is only a single romance in the entire story, and that seems more like sex for entertainment than any expression of mutual feelings.

Speaking of feelings, everyone in the book is cold and hostile.  Breq and Seivarden form a very unusual pair, prone to abuse and often outright hostility.  Somehow, a loyalty bond develops between them, as a result of poorly explained decisions by Breq.  The rest of the characters seems emotionally distant at best, but fortunately they only play bit roles.  The only likeable character, Awn, gets killed off relatively quickly.  While this gives the protagonist the reason to start her quest, it also cancels my emotional investment in the story.

The story itself is not all that well thought of.  The setting is relatively familiar: our lone hero finds herself on a desolate planet where a hidden outpost may contain the quest item.  Flash back to a planetary occupation that looks very much like a contemporary military mission in a third world country.  And when the main narrative finally picks up speed, it gets convoluted.  First with the realization that the quest is impossible – not just very difficult where the hero must overcome enormous obstacles but impossible to the extent that nobody cares about the outcome.  Then, mysterious aliens get thrown into the mix, as a catalyst to the emperor’s seeming schizophrenia and as a set-up for the next book.

Leckie is spinning a large space opera here, but she failed to engage me.  The use of a single pronoun was very confusing.  I have nothing against strange civilizations with a single gender (it’s what I assumed while reading the book), but I must contrast this with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.  There, the civilizations are entirely non-human (something I also learned via supplementary research), but the author worked hard to make them relatable to the reader.  Here, the effect is the opposite: Leckie tried to throw very strange elements into an otherwise familiar setting, and I never forgot I was reading a fictional story.  The few times I got a little deeper and started caring about the characters or cultures, I was quickly reminded that those were just words on a paper.  I like to lose myself in a good story; here I just floated on the surface.

The Ancillary series may be improving over time.  Leckie certainly is a wordsmith, and her writing style is one of the best I’ve encountered in the past decade, especially compared with other recent Hugo winners.  However, I won’t find out whether her character description and storytelling gets better.  I felt like I gained nothing from the first book, and I don’t plan on continuing my journey through the Empire of Radch.

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