While bouncing along in Steve’s wake at WorldCon, I attended the Drinks With Authors event and was therefore permitted the opportunity to do battle with a gruesome beholder who had taken the form of Ann Leckie. I quickly won by rolling something higher than a 7 on the giant inflatable 20-sided die, and she dissolved into pixels, leaving behind a pile of gold coins and a book.
The book was an ARC of Ancillary Justice; I’ve just finished it, and I love it for being original and thoughtful while bringing to mind aspects of my other favorite space operas.* (Because yeah, this is now very much one of those favorites.)
I don’t want to give an overview of the plot, because there’s quite a bit of lovely, slow reveal (Liz Bourke gives some nice overview in this enjoyable review on tor.com). I really enjoyed feeling the pieces click together. As we gradually learn more about Breq and her past, what she once was and what her goals are now, we also learn about the empire, religious rites, social customs,** technology, and hints of betrayal and tyranny. Unlike in the unabsorbed cultures, the citizens of the empire are genderless and all their pronouns are feminine. I liked that, and enjoyed learning about the characters as people without knowing whether they were male or female (sometimes for several chapters and sometimes not at all).
Disparate parts form together to make a breathtaking whole. The cultures feel colorful and interesting rather than space versions of Earth cultures. As the action plays out, we get a sense that Leckie is playing with the proverb where the kingdom is lost for want of a horseshoe nail, as much as with the narrative potentialities of AI and “greater good” justifications for expansionism. The use of AI shipbrains*** and ancillaries (or corpse soldiers, as some of the common folk call them) allows for omniscience in some parts of the story even with a first-person narrator.
A surprisingly unreliable first-person narrator, actually. Breq’s attention to detail is just what you’d expect from an ancient AI shipbrain: she notes a six-second pause instead of the space of a breath. When subtly encouraging a junior lieutenant, she pours not a little bit of tea, but eleven milliliters. She maintains perfect control of her expressions. Except that as other characters react to her, we realize that she’s become far more human in both behavior and motivation than she knows. Absent-mindedly humming, limping, and making friends through the galaxy, Breq challenges the definitions of humanity and love.
According to the interview in the back of this copy, Ancillary Justice is the beginning of a loose trilogy. Without holding back on us in the first book, I think Leckie has given herself a lot of room to tell stories in this world, and I look forward to reading them.
* In Conquest Born‘s harsh ice planet diplomacy, Dread Empire’s Fall‘s deadly social slights amongst space officers
** I did notice what seemed to me like a continuity error in carrying out social customs, but it was a minor and forgivable point.
*** a concept I’m really fangirling lately, having also recently read Scalzi’s short story The Tale of the Wicked, which reminds me to recommend fetching yourselves a copy of this goddamned fabulous anthology.