by Ann Leckie
Rating: 5 Stars
‘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 one of those books that seemed to come out of nowhere and take over the blogosphere. Critics were raving about it, bloggers were flocking to read it and awards were flooding in. But it somehow passed me by the first time round. Possibly that’s because I don’t read anywhere near as much sci fi as I should do, especially considering how much I love the genre. I guess I just don’t have enough experience on what the good stuff is – any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!
So anyway, when I got my hands on a library copy at the end of last year, I thought it would be worth giving it a go as it might be a decent read. I’m so glad I did, but I had no idea what I was getting into!
The book grabs you from the very beginning, dropping you right into the middle of Breq’s story as her plans for revenge are derailed. On her way to securing a vital piece of her strategy, she stumbles upon a former – not particularly likeable – member of her crew who has hit rock bottom after being displaced in both time and space.
The rest of the book progresses on dual timelines. The present day storyline follows Breq and her companion on an epic – but intensely personal – journey to try and balance the books against an evil expansionist empire. There are only two people in this crusade and in many ways what they are doing is insignificant, but the fact that they are trying to do it at all is what matters. The flashback sequences alternate between a brutal annexation hundreds of years ago and the pivotal events that led to Breq’s separation from the rest of her consciousness.
Now this shouldn’t work, this should be incredibly confusing and, frankly, a complete and utter chore to read. We jump back and forth between Breq the former ancillary in the current timeline and Breq as her former collective consciousness the military ship ‘Justice of Toren’ at various points in history. We’re also dealing with several mysteries at once and everyone, absolutely everyone is referred to as ‘she’. I finished the book only aware of the actual gender of a handful of characters and it honestly didn’t matter. It did make it a bit hard to visualise the characters, but you still got a great sense of their personalities. They all read as fully realised people regardless of whether we would regard them as male or female or anywhere in between.
But it works, it works so well and it is written beautifully. Breq is engaging, funny and strong whilst also being distant, brusque and completely alien. Seivarden is well balanced between highly unpleasant snob and someone you can really sympathise with. The multiple cultures Leckie creates are also wonderfully realised. There are specific details of their religions, their mourning practices and courtesies. The Radch are fascinating and Leckie manages to explain an alien culture from the POV of one of its members without a huge info dump. We aren’t given an in-depth seminar on the intricacies of their cultural practices – for instance, the origins of the Radch’s obsession with gloves is never fully explained – but we have enough context to understand the relevance.
It’s clear that the sheer imaginative scope of this novel is staggering. Leckie has managed to produce a sprawling, detailed universe which we experience on multiple levels, in multiple time periods, all from the perspective of the same consciousness. The work that must have gone into this novel is beyond imagining. But as you can see from this review, she
Finally, there’s one thing that really stands out for me in this book, that elevates it from a well realised concept into something wonderfully moving and that’s the music. It just sings throughout it and acts as a miraculous binding force across all the time periods and states of humanity. Breq never really explains why Justice of Toren sang, why the music means so much to her, but you feel it in every scrap of song.