There are occasions when a book grips you by the skull and demands that you ingest it whole, unhinging your mind’s jaw, if need be, and shoving the whole thing in there without pausing for breath.
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is kind of like that.
Let’s go over its reception. It won the Hugo and Nebula for best novel, the Arthur C. Clarke award, the BSFA Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and the Kitschies Golden Tentacle for Best Debut Novel. The more I heard about it, the more intriguing I found it, but never got around to reading it, even when a friend came over and left it on my dinner table about eight months ago.
I finally picked it up for my e-reader in July, long after giving the paper copy back and relocating to California, and that’s when it sank its hooks in me and demanded my full attention.
It is spectacularly well written, and Leckie manages to insert the reader behind the eyes of a being utterly foreign to human experience, while managing to express a sympathetic, relatable, and complex character. The universe of the Radch is one of tremendous depth, sometimes reminiscent of other space operas (in terms of Colonial Space Empire Colonizing Tropes, Space Empires Viewing Themselves as Civilized While Other Planets Are Savage Tropes, and certain Space Military Tropes. Truth be told, I think they’re tropes because, left to our own devices, it’s pretty much how we’d act in a far-future spacefaring situation), but we are never walked down the pages of an encyclopedia as the characters have to acclimatize the reader to the universe. We’re simply thrust into the middle of multiple timelines with disparate circumstances for our protagonist, and we thirstily wonder how one situation became the other, and how the character finds itself in dire straits.
You’ve noticed that I am not using gender pronouns to describe the protagonist. There are two reasons for this. The first is because they (and no, that’s not improper grammar) are a sentient spaceship, named The Justice of Toren, who is simultaneously a spaceship and the many thousand Ancillary soldiers that it can control simultaneously. This leads to some great passages that jump location and perspective sentence-to-sentence, which were initially jarring, but eventually felt completely natural. The Ancillaries are human bodies (read: corpses) linked to the consciousness of Toren, and the way they’re viewed by the rest of society leads to some interesting conundrums, both for Toren and the people who interact with them/it.
The second reason is that the language of the Radchaai empire does not use gender-specific pronouns, and defaults to the female. Everyone is described as “she” and “her” until the reader can infer gender by context. It made for a unique reading experience, and I realized that it’s very easy to slip into heteronormative expectations for characters, even in fantastical settings. This book brought a refreshing perspective to the fore, and while I may not employ similar methods in my own writing, I think there’s much that can be learned from Leckie’s approach.
The mystery of the event gap between timelines sustains the novel for about two-thirds of its length, and once the answer is provided, the present timeline continues and the action and pacing pick up, leading to a spectacular and explosive ending. Some of the twists and turns were expected and satisfying, and some came out of left field and had me grinning when they were revealed.
Ancillary Justice was a fantastic read. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Ancillary Sword, as soon as I can.