Sep 6 2013 4:00pm

“Nothing quite clarifies your thoughts like thinking you’re about to die.” Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie It’s not every day a debut novel by an author you’d never heard of before derails your entire afternoon with its brilliance. But when my review copy of Ancillary Justice arrived, that’s exactly what it did. In fact, it arrowed upward to reach a pretty high position on my list of best space opera novels ever.

Which is to say: Ancillary Justice is a novel about which I need to forcibly restrain myself from making high-pitched enthusiastic noises. YOU SHOULD ALL READ IT.


Ancillary Justice does many things extremely well. Told in the first person, it’s a narrative in two parts: the present, which comprises a thriller plot (among other things) in which Breq, the last surviving ancillary soldier from the now-destroyed vessel Justice of Toren seeks to acquire a weapon with which Breq can kill the Lord of the Radch; and the past, where we learn what happened to set Breq on the path towards a quixotic and at first glance unattainable revenge. Leckie’s prose is clear and muscular, with a strong forward impetus, like the best of thriller writing. It grabs you and urges you onwards. And her interleaved narrative is both clever and well-executed: clever, because alternating past and present heightens the novel’s tension, ratcheting up the what happens next? factor, and well-executed because most of the breaks and pauses seem entirely natural, rather than forced.

It’s a good thriller, even if some events come together in ways that appear too easily coincidental: Leckie writes a rousing climax and sticks the dismount.

And in the past sections, there’s a really interesting exploration of the narrative possibilities of first person point of view for post-human characters: entities whose consciousness is distributed across multiple bodies. It opens up the field of view contained within the narrative I.* This post-human—but not post-fleshly—vision provides a significant part of the backdrop for Ancillary Justice’s events. Breq is an ancillary soldier, created from the dead bodies of conquered peoples, part of the distributed consciousness of the ship Justice of Toren. The Lord of the Radch, against whom Breq’s revenge is directed, is not only multi-bodied, but also self-divided, parts of the Lord’s consciousness carrying out secret actions against other parts.

*Pun most definitely intended.

As for worldbuilding: Leckie’s really good at it. During the course of the story we spend time in three separate planetary or extra-planetary locations within and on the fringes of the empire known as the Radch. One is a planet recently conquered and not yet assimilated. One is not within the bounds of the empire. And one is a central hub, at the heart of Radchaai culture and dominion. Each are depicted not only with their own individual cultures and subcultures, but with strong internal variations and divisions. Moreover, Leckie enlarges on an ongoing thematic critique of the nature and purposes of empires—particularly expansionist ones.

Up to now, I haven’t mentioned the most striking aspect of Ancillary Justice.

The pronouns.

Radchaai language doesn’t use gendered pronouns, usually. Since Breq is culturally Radchaai, Ancillary Justice uses only one pronoun to refer to all its characters, except where Breq is making an effort to be culturally sensitive. Leckie has chosen—in a move that can be contrasted with The Left Hand of Darkness—to use the English feminine pronoun throughout the text. It’s an interesting choice, one that adds to the sense of reading in a different culture, but also one which (as had to be pointed out to me) runs the risk of reinforcing our existing linguistic and cultural gender binaries.

On the whole, it’s an ambitious trick and I think it works: every time Leckie uses a female-gendered pronoun to refer to a person whose gender has not been specified or has been specified as male it made me re-examine all my assumptions about how worlds and genders fit together. I am left to consider how gender is constructed and how I react to gendered and ungendered pronouns in text: trying to look at it from five different directions at once.

Half of them are this is awesome. Half of them are why is this my first reaction?

In sum, Ancillary Justice is both an immensely fun novel, and a conceptually ambitious one: it has many layers and many levels at which it can be enjoyed. And I can’t hardly wait for the sequel.


Ancillary Justice is available October 1st from Orbit

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Ancillary Justice made her extraordinarily less cranky. Her blog. Her twitter.

Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
In my not-yet-finished review, the use and importance of language is something I saw and was very interested in, too. And its a crackerjack read.
Liz Bourke
2. hawkwing-lb
It just hits so many of my narrative kinks, Paul. For me, it's utterly brilliant, and I'm really happy I got to read it.

(And also sad at how long it will be before I can read the next book.)
Andy Linder
3. Andy Linder
"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." --Samuel Johnson
Tudza White
4. tudzax1
Didn't Terry Pratchett say something like, "The prospect of death concentrates the mind wonderfully. Unfortuneatly, it focuses on the fact that you are going to die pretty much exclusively."

So yeah, impending death makes things pretty clear for you. Damn I'm going to die. Real soon now I'm going to die. Can't get past the fact, I'm going to die. Oh my god, I'm going to die. And so on.
Anna S
5. Anarkey
Your review strikes me as sharp and spot on, Liz.
I also loved, loved, loved this book. It hits a crazy number of my storytelling kinks (so much so that my brain felt kind of hijacked by it), but it's so well done that I have to think it will be an enjoyable read for many, many people and not just the folk who are desperately interested in questions of identity and colonialism or those won over by really careful worldbuilding.

Possibly spoilery: I understood the ancillaries as very specifically NOT dead bodies, by the way. The original selves are flushed as part of the assimilation process, not prior. In stasis, they remain whoever they were before. That's why the assimilation process is so horrific and has a non-success rate. And that, too, plays along with the whole identity business in a way that was incredibly interesting to me.
Andy Linder
7. jenphalian
I loved this book, and this is a great review.

@ Anarkey - Your point about the ancillary bodies is true, but once the body is assimilated, the prior person is dead. The slang is "corpse soldiers" because they're made out of dead people.
D. Bell
8. SchuylerH
I really want to read this but if there's a lot of hype surrounding a book, I generally buy it and put it away for a while before reading it (I did this with Among Others and Dark Eden, both of which I enjoyed). Is this unusual?
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
Still reading (and enjoying). I'm looking forward to the re-read on this one.

One thing that's interesting me even more than the gender issues is the way that the multiplicity of bodies for a given ship are shown.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
Ever since Liz posted this review, I have had this book in the back of my mind--reinforced by news of the awards and recognition it has garnered. And recently, I had time to kill because of a cancelled meeting, a nearby bookstore with an easy chair in the coffee shop, and found this book for sale. Before I finished my latte, I was hooked. Leckie is a wonderful, wonderful storyteller with a rich imagination, and a wonderfully clean and simple prose style. I have not been reading much SF lately, as I have felt kind of burned out on the genre. But I am glad I gave this one a try. This is one of the best books I have read in many years, in any genre.
D. Bell
11. SchuylerH
@10: And you've still got Ancillary Sword to read...

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