Hi All and welcome to the inaugural post of my review column, Ladies of the Light Saber and Sword. Once a month, I’ll be reviewing a stellar, out-of-this-world science fiction or fantasy novel written by a female author. It’s a great time to begin this because, as some of you may know, this year was the first time in history that female authors swept the fiction categories of the Nebula Awards (the most prestigious award ceremony for speculative novels)! Which means there are loads of female authored books that I haven’t read yet just waiting for me to crack open their spines.
I hope my reviews encourage the blogosphere to go out and buy these excellent novels and spread the word!
First up for review is the debut novel (which, coincidentally won a Nebula this year for best novel) by the inimitable Ann Leckie entitled Ancillary Justice. As far as genre goes, the novel has been categorized as Space Opera, but in losing myself between the pages, the categorization is a bit reductive. It’s a gender-bending world map constructed on heavily science fiction origins. It brought to mind Hyperion by Dan Simmons and Asimov’s Foundation series and bows its head to previous literary traditions with unidentified quotes that ring familiar in the wide scope of the universally constructed landscape. Not only does it world build, it universe builds and, creates a protagonist so unlike any I’ve read before that I couldn’t help but be intrigued.
The main character, Justice of Toren Esk One (known to the other characters simply as Breq) is the last remnant of a space ship. Yes, that’s right. The main character is the artificial intelligence of a troop carrier, over a thousand years old and the entire novel is told in first person. Trippy, right? At first, I was skeptical at how Leckie would execute the novel, but she does so brilliantly; in her constructed world, the ship’s mainframe was essentially uploaded into the consciousness of cryogenically frozen prisoners of war called ancillaries, erasing their human identity and giving Justice of Toren multiple eyes through which to see and interact with the world. While many characters (and even herself) states she is unemotional and detached from humanity, she seethes with a self-righteousness and anger that is as close to human emotion as you can get.
This isn’t an easy read by any means; it’s a book that you need to sit with and mull over. It’s the sort of novel that stays with you for weeks after as you try to wrap your head around all the political, social and philosophical commentary it offers.
The main plot of the novel details Breq’s journey through space as she searches for a weapon with which she can destroy the Lord of the Universe known as Anaander Mianaai or simply, the Lord of Radch. She is accompanied, unwillingly, by a previous captain of her ship named Seivarden (not, as she makes explicitly clear, one of her favorite captains). The novel alternates chapters between flashbacks and the present as readers try to come to grips with the boiling anger in the main character’s voice that underlies her words. Soon we learn the last ancillary carries with her the death of not just her entire previous physical ship but also one of her favorite captains.
Some groundbreaking themes that permeate the folds of the novel include birthright and social class, gender identification, religion, and division of the self. Radchaai, the colonizing humanoid race through the novel, can be directly translated into citizen and civilized. The Radchaaihave annexed most of the planets within the system, their main enemy being the alien race named the Presger. Characters around Breq constantly espouse about keeping humanity “pure” but not all of humanity is considered by their culture to be equal. There is a distinctive divide between the upper and lower classes and a constant fear within the upper classes that their strongarmed reign will come to a close. As the political structure on some annexed planets attempts to provide compensatory positions to members of the lower classes where assignments were previously dictated by birthright and place, Breq finds herself thrust into the turmoil, toeing the line between the illusion of fairness and the Radchs irreconcilable social differences. Though the Radch often awarded honors to higher ranked, wealthy and old family names, one commander decided to attempt to help people from lower brackets move up into positions of authority. As one lieutenant states of the new policy of helping the lower classes, “For centuries, only the wealthy and well-connected tested as suitable for certain jobs…In the last, what, fifty, seven-five years, that hasn’t been true. Have the lesser houses suddenly begun to produce officer candidates where they didn’t before?” (Leckie, 60). She argues that the same corrupt practices are being used to make up for centuries of wrong, committing the Radch empire to a continuous cycle of justification and payment.
Another innovative aspect of the novel is its treatment of gender. Breq states that in Radchaai culture, there is no difference in gender and everyone is addressed as “she” regardless of what lays beneath their clothes that would identify them otherwise. While other languages and races feel as though not identifying someone’s gender is an act of rudeness, gender for the Radch is fluid and while it is a bit difficult to get used to in the beginning, readers must be willing to open their mind and immerse themselves in the totally new world view (it is quite refreshing).
The diversity in religion and religious experience is reminiscent of Game of Thrones; while there are conflicts between those who worship certain gods and those who worship others, the representation of beliefs span the universe. The Radch believe that everything that happens is preordained by the gods and that there is no such thing as coincidence. This helps explain their reliance on birthright and their constant investigation of “signs”. As Breq is technically a ship, she does not consider herself Radchaai and worships her own gods and idols (one of which bears a startling resemblance to herself).
One of the strengths of the entire novel is that Leckie trusts her readers. She believes they are intelligent and as such, provides minimal explanation for the world she creates. She essentially forces the reader to discover the world for themselves, like a foreigner navigating a completely new vocabulary and way of life to which they would not have been previously accustomed. It’s exhilarating and frustrating all at once and when readers glimpse instances of the familiar, they cling to them (the Raadchai’s obsession with tea is one such point).
I was not aware, while reading, that this novel was the first in a series which explains its “unfinished” aura. However, I didn’t find the inconclusive ending unsatisfactory (if any of you have read Dark Eden by Chis Beckett, it has the same flavor). Still, I don’t believe a conclusion was what Leckie was so intent on reaching in this novel. She gave us a glimpse into an alien world in which social status, religion and gender all provide interesting dialogue and, even though Breq is seen as inhuman by those around her, she totally won my heart. 5 out of 5 stars.