Thursday, October 09, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice is the most celebrated work of science fiction of the year, perhaps the most heralded science fiction debut of all time. In 2014 Ancillary Justice won the Nebula, Hugo, British Science Fiction, Locus and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Happily, the sequel, Ancillary Sword was just released on October 7th.

With such a distinguished pedigree I was very anxious to read the book and placed it on the top of my priority list for my birthday wishlist on However, I think due to the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette Book Group, the book my husband ordered did not show up on my birthday but instead was delayed in transit several weeks. Several weeks? Yipes! So, I took measures into my own hands and found a copy of the book sitting at the Los Angeles Public Library, which is the copy I read to write this review.

Here is the blurb on the back of the book that describes Ancillary Justice:
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. 
Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. 
Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
Ancillary Justice is definitely an intriguing and well-written book. But is it an enjoyable and "good" book? I'm not completely sure. I do think it is an important book and I am happy that it has won so many awards. However, as an example of my preferred science fiction genre of thrilling space opera it is not as successful. This is not a defect that should cause very many readers to reject the book, but I point it out to let the reader know where I am coming from in my review of this acclaimed work. It should be obvious, but I am making this position explicit: no piece of work resonates with everyone who encounters it.

That being said, there are some extremely compelling aspects of Ancillary Justice which should make it a must-read for almost anyone who is interested in what is generally considered the best work of speculative fiction released in the last year.

The first thing that most reviewers discuss when they talk about Ancillary Justice (after they recount its amazing sweep at the awards) is the way that gender is performed and presented in the book. The cultural milieu in which the book is set is the Radch, which is a galaxy-spanning empire ruled by Anaander Minaai, Lord of the Radch. But the Radch do not understand gender as we do, so theirn cultural practice is to describe all human being as female and to use feminine pronouns (him and her) regardless of what the actual sex is of the person they are referring to. As a committed feminist myself I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the book. It is not as disconcerting as one would expect. More disorienting, or conscience-altering is the other main feature of the book, and that is that the main character, Breq, used to be a consciousness that controlled an entire warship and literally thousands of "ancillaries" (humans or humanoids who were harvested from planets colonized and controlled by the Radch who have had their consciousness wiped and replaced with that of controlling entity). To me, this was a much more interesting feature of the book than its treatment of gender, which made the world-building even more compelling.

The primary weakness for me (besides the truly ridiculous name of the villain, Anaander Minaai) was the outrageous complexity of the plot. Others may find this aspect a strength, but I think it was convoluted to the point of confusion. That being said, the story was still quite thrilling, and there is a lot of suspense and action which definitely makes Ancillary Justice an interesting and memorable reading experience.

Is it the best science fiction book of all time? Not in my opinion, but, hey, maybe your opinion will differ. It is DEFINITELY worth a look.

Title: Ancillary Justice.
Ann Leckie.
Paperback: 416 pages.
Date Published: October 1, 2013.
Date Read: July 1, 2014.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

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