Reading Ancillary Justice
While in the Philippines I packed four books to read. Four because I would be away for two weeks and I knew I would be on a plane at least four times. But only four because I would be bringing home more books from Manila. After much deliberation over which four books to pack, I settled on Magic Bites, Foundryside, Truthwitch, and Ancillary Justice.
I finished two of the other three novels first. Magic Bites was finished on the flight from Melbourne to
Manila. Foundryside was read throughout my snorkeling and island hopping in Coron and El Nido all the way back to Manila again. Truthwitch was left for the return journey, finished while sitting in taxis and waiting at the airport. Ancillary Justice was read across a few days while sitting in fast food restaurants (you haven’t lived until you try Filipino fast food), and in coffee shops.
I share this because there is something special about reading a novel while travelling. Something about the act of reading means that the place and time you read can affect you sincerely. But the very best novels are excellent regardless of location. Ancillary Justice was one of those books: a daring science fiction novel told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence. A constructed being owned by an alien empire.
This artificial intelligence begins the novel in human form as Breq. Breq is the one surviving unit of the many that made up the entity known as Justice of Toren. Her body is referred to as an ancillary and each ancillary is essentially a corpse-zombie-soldier with special tech implants. Moreover, each ancillary is connected to Justice of Toren by this kind of ‘hive mind’ that is the entirety of our artificial intelligence protagonist. Sound confusing? Ann Leckie certainly deals with this technicality with great skill in her intelligent writing, making her daring choice of protagonist highly accessible to the reader.
While Ancillary Justice can boil down to a plot about betrayal and revenge, it is the detail of the story that sets it apart. From her opening on an ice planet (reminiscent of that scene in The Empire Strikes Back with Luke and the Tauntaun), the reader is provided with a mix of ‘current’ events and past events when Breq was part of the entire hive mind.
The choice to replace the pronoun ‘he’ with the pronoun ‘she’ is also interesting. At first this might lead to the consideration that all the characters in the novel are female. Breq does not distinguish characters based on gender due to her language possessing no gender markings. Therefore it becomes interesting for the reader to identify which characters are male and female. All of which is due to the point of view of the protagonist.
Ancillary Justice’ Strengths
On the whole, Ancillary Justice is a well-told science fiction novel. Its greatest strength lies in how it uses a specific point-of-view to explore issues. With discussion of ideas such as religion, philosophy, gender, xenophobia and differing perspectives. The Radch Empire is displayed and unfolded from this point-of-view. Yet nothing feels too vague, but rather perfectly balanced.
If like me you have time to spare because you will be travelling, consider packing this to read. Or if you are yet to read this novel and enjoy powerful science fiction narratives, again consider this next. It is a story which may divide some readers who are looking for a more groundbreaking plot. Or who find the narrative devices gimmicky. I found this to be one of the more intelligent science fiction novels I have read in a long time. A novel which draws on a past history of science fiction to build an intriguing narrative for the future.
Themes and Ideas9.8 /10
Unique Plot, Characters or Worlds9.8 /10
- Intelligent writing
- Unique science fiction character and point of view
- Cleverly structured space opera
- Daring choices for a science fiction novel
- The plot might feel lacking for some readers compared to the narrative techniques
- The use of 'she' consistently might confuse some readers
- Some readers might find the worldbuilding too vague