Pulling Seivarden out of the snow had cost me time and money that I could ill afford, and for what? Left to her own devices she would find herself another hit or three of kef, and she would find her way into another place like that grimy tavern and get herself well and truly killed. If that was what she wanted, I had no right to prevent her. But if she had wanted to die, why hadn’t she done the thing cleanly, registered her intention and gone to the medic as anyone would? I didn’t understand.
There was a good deal I didn’t understand, and nineteen years pretending to be human hadn’t taught me as much as I’d thought.
She goes by Breq, when she needs a name, but the narrator of Ancillary Justice is not so easily identified. No single string of characters can really be sufficient. In her first-person narrative, even “I” is often tested and found wanting.
The Radch, whence she hails, is a vast intergalactic empire. Throughout its millennia-long history, new planets have been added by annexation: local populations are subdued and absorbed, dissenting voices destroyed. Spare bodies (often the result of such conquest) are stripped of their identities and stored in suspension, ready to be repurposed as ancillaries: soldiers under the direct control of the ship’s computer.
Breq the narrator is a fragment, a piece of a larger AI left stranded in a human body. Once upon a time she was (and was part of) the Radchaai spaceship Justice of Toren, one body amongst thousands of similar ancillaries. Breq identifies herself variously with the ship, and with her ancillary unit, and with her individual body: her need to distinguish these three layers of her self outlines the complexity of her self-definition. Despite her physical form, she doesn’t feel human. But it feels more like a threat than an offer of help when a medic offers to try and bring back the person her body once was, before her corpse was appropriated to be an ancillary. All of these little touches bring the issue of identity to the fore, minor actions and decisions contributing to a thousand questions.
The narrative follows two parallel paths, nineteen years apart. In the earlier storyline the narrator looks back to her time as Justice of Toren, and the events towards the end of the ship’s two-thousand-year lifespan which were formative to her individual identity. By contrast the present Breq — the narrator of both halves — is isolated, an individual apart from the ship she once was. On a middle-of-nowhere planet called Nilt she finds Seivarden, an officer who served on Justice of Toren, and who should have been dead for a thousand years; a strange coincidence that connects her to her past while adjusting the trajectory of her current path. The question of fate and coincidence is another major theme in the book, as the Radchaai people put a lot of store in omens, and this was only one of many seemingly-random occurrences that play a significant part in the unfolding plot.
There’s no small influence from ancient Rome in the philosophy of the Radch, although the Radchaai citizens themselves don’t seem conversant with early — by which I mean Earth-bound — human history. The empire expands its borders constantly, absorbing indigenous populations, “civilising” them with citizenship, and incorporating local religions by a complex mapping of deities. When one character puts forward the view that the often-brutal annexations “bring peace” to the conquered people, I was put in mind of the Pax Romana. Social structures are conventionally hierarchical, and older families complain about the up-and-coming provincial (plebeian) types who obtain jobs beyond what their birth would indicate. At the individual level, patron-client relationships are a commonplace and systematic method of sharing influence. (Even the -aai ending, which appears to be the Radchaai genitive, sounds in my head like the -ae of Latin first declension. But perhaps I’ve spent too long with my nose in grammar books.)
Being a linguist, I heard of this book when it first came out — not because of its plot or setting, but because of its pronouns, which made waves across the internet. The people of the Radch don’t distinguish gender, in life or in language, and since Radchaai is Breq’s first language, Leckie was faced with a challenge rendering her words into English. She made the controversial choice to use female pronouns throughout, except where Breq is speaking a foreign (gendered) language. (You’ll note I’m keeping that convention in this review.) I say it’s controversial, but frankly, I think it would be hard to find any solution that wasn’t: the most likely way to avoid controversy in the press would be to stick with the English default, treating “he” as neuter, and I suspect you can see why that’s no less problematic. As a reader, the effect of a feminine default is interesting. I adjusted very quickly, and one consequence is that maleness becomes the marked state whenever it’s revealed, quite the opposite of the usual trend in English grammar. Combined with the wider focus on constructing identity and social roles, there was plenty to think about.
Yet I would hate to leave you with the impression that Ancillary Justice is a heavy, plodding tome. These various aspects of philosophy and psychology are core to Breq’s personal journey, but they seldom slow the action down: this is an action-packed story of revenge and war, as well as the tale of one person’s quest to become fully herself.
Despite this being a space opera of intergalactic scope, the number of key characters is comparatively small. Seivarden, whose life Breq saves in the beginning, is a typically arrogant officer from an ancient family. Unfortunately for her, the years while she’s been in suspension have seen her house disappear altogether, and she’s struggling to adjust to her loss of position. She begins as an unlikeable brat, but her personal growth is a joy to read. In the earlier storyline, Lieutenant Awn is the human officer Breq attends; by contrast, she’s from a poorer background, sorted into her role by the aptitudes, and comes across as solidly likeable. Anander Mianaai is another fascinating character: the Lord of the Radch is split across many bodies, much as Breq was in her ship form, but her precise nature — whether she has human or artificial intelligence, for instance — is unclear, at least in this, the first book of the series.
I found it took me a few chapters to really get into this novel, as I grew accustomed to Breq’s unique narrative style and began to build a picture of the world, but by the end I was utterly convinced: this is one of the most imaginative and thoughtful sci-fi books I’ve read in years, and I’ll be picking up the sequel as soon as I have time.
The second book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword, was published in October.