Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I’d been hearing a lot about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, as it is doing well on the awards circuit, included winning a 2014 Hugo for best novel. I’ve been trying to supplement my fantasy reading with more Sci-Fi, so I picked it up. (well, I picked my Kindle up anyway.)

I was expecting it to be good, from all the press and awards, so “pleasantly surprised” isn’t quite the right phrase. I guess I was pleasantly whelmed.

The central Sci-Fi conceit of Leckie’s universe is that a human empire called the Imperial Radch has come to rule a great swath of known space through the use of ship AIs that can control armies of corpses in a hive-mind sort of situation. The corpse-soldiers, or ancillaries, of a particular ship are all one being. The story’s protagonist is one such AI, the Justice of Toren. But the ship only has her ancillaries in extended flashbacks that form half of the viewpoint chapters – the other half, closer to the present day, show that the ship has lost all of her ancillaries, and indeed her ship itself, and is relegated to one body. The flashbacks and present-day sequences move forward in tandem, slowly revealing what happened to cause the ship to lose its ancillaries, and also revealing the motivation for Justice of Toren’s actions in the present-day sequences.

The deft handling of the past-and-present storylines is one of the things that make this book work so well. You get both the cool sci-fi-ness of being in the point of view of an AI that has dozens of bodies at the same time, but you also get the much more human POV of the present-day chapters of a person dealing with a deeply-felt and tragic loss.

The book also has some cool cultural conceits. The Imperial Radch is a genderless society, and they refer to everyone using the pronoun “her,” which causes some confusion when they interact with non-Radchaii cultures. The book is not at all preachy on this point, but it’s constantly present and can’t help but make the reader think about gender issues and the masculinity inherent in so much of language.

The book also does a great job setting up a series – there’s what looks to be an overarching Big Bad in the form of an alien culture that seems almost like prescient puppeteers pulling the strings of most of the major plot points in the first book. Though we haven’t met them yet, these alien Presger certainly seem ominous.

My only major problem with the book was that I didn’t feel the “reveal” of what was going on behind the scenes was very well-explained – I understood in a broad sense what was going on in the climax of the book, which revolves around the Rachaii leader’s ancillaries and their identities, but the logistics of it were confusing, and along with the main character I had trouble keeping track of who was on whose side, and even what those sides were. But this is a minor quibble, and it’s something that is definitely open to resolution in Ancillary Sword, the next book in the series, which I will definitely be picking up.