IN SHORT: A human who used to be a space ship AI embarks on a slow-paced mission of revenge.
WHAT IT IS: Imaginative and engrossing, Ann Leckie creates a unique main character in Breq and a detailed and interesting culture in the Radch. Plus it’s a cool concept to take a vast space ship AI and cram it into one frail human body. Nicely done.
WHAT IT’S NOT: Don’t read this expecting explosions and action. That’s clearly not its focus, despite what those two space fighters on the cover made me think. The book is heavy on background, ideas, and exposition. Lots of exposition, in fact. It can drag at times.
WHAT I THOUGHT: This book was not what I expected. It’s a sedate story that takes its time exploring the background and ideas of its world.
Now, that’s not necessary a bad thing, even for someone like me who prefers a high explosion to exposition ratio. The world Ann Leckie paints is a rich one, especially when it comes to Radch culture. You learn a lot about the Radch in this book. Their military and politics, religion and social rules are all explored. This allows Ann Leckie to breathe life into the culture as a whole. It feels real, coherent, and believable. While reading the book, I accepted that these tea-drinking, glove-wearing, gender ambiguous people could actually exist.
Which brings me to my next topic: gender ambiguity. The majority of the book is written using female pronouns for all characters, regardless of gender. This is because the Radch don’t have separate pronouns for male and female, and can actually get confused by the whole matter. It’s an effective way to show us an aspect of Radch culture (i.e. their overall blindness to gender differences). It also leads us to sentences like this:
“She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt.”
Yeah, just get used to sentences like that. It’s not a bad thing. Not really. But it can be jarring at times. It also makes developing a mental picture of the characters difficult to impossible. I had a great picture of their clothes, which are consistently described in detail, just not of the people wearing them.
But enough about that. The Radch are a thoroughly interesting and well thought out future people. The book is almost worth it just for them. But what about the story?
Let’s just get this out of the way. Breq is a very passive character. She states early in the book, “Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.” This attitude remains consistent throughout. Ancillary Justice is a case of events happening to the main character, rather than the main character shaping events. For the most part, at least.
Obviously, not every main character has to be some sort of badass commando, but Breq is a badass commando on a quest to kill the most powerful person in the galaxy. It’s hard to root for a character that is on one hand very capable but on the other hand just lets things happen to her.
There is also a lot of exposition. I mean A LOT of exposition. Granted, most of it is interesting exposition. But it can drag the story’s pacing down even further.
Those criticisms aside, Ancillary Justice was an entertaining read. I found myself drawn into the story of the Radch and Breq’s personal quest. It’s a much slower read than I normally tackle, but I can recognize a well crafted tale when I see one.
THAT COVER: All right. Now that I’ve gotten the review out of the way, let’s talk about Orbit Books’ cover treatment. Naturally, this has nothing to do with the quality of Ann Leckie’s writing, hence its placement after the review.
Gaze at the cover. Let it soak in for a while. What comes to mind?
I’ll tell you the first thing that came to my mind. SHMUPS. Games like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun. The space fighters made me think of player one and player two for a vertical scrolling shoot ‘em up. I’m being completely serious here.
And did I find any space fighters in the book? Nope. Not a single one. 😦
I picked up Ancillary Justice expecting space battles and a high-octane quest for revenge. What I got (at least near the beginning) was a lot of talk about fishing rights.
Like I said, not the book I was expecting. Oh well. I still enjoyed it.