“. . . an excellent book by a writer who deserves a large and loyal following . . .”
Really good, new science fiction writers seem to be as rare as hen’s teeth these days. Who is the last one you can remember discovering? Alastair Reynolds? Cory Doctorow? (No, don't include fantasy writers, we’re talking sci-fi here.) Whoever it was, it was probably years ago.
It gets to the point where you hardly dare pick up a new science fiction writer for fear of the disappointment to follow. So it is a great joy to find Ann Leckie, who not only writes with a strong, clear voice, but who writes science fiction that is intelligent, inventive, and richly textured.
Ancillary Justice is a simple tale of intrigue, betrayal, and vengeance but it is set in a future world that is finely drawn and beautifully imagined. The protagonist, Breq, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the Lord of the Radch, supreme ruler of the Radchaai empire. It has taken her 20 years of risk and privation, and she has visited many worlds throughout the galaxy, but the end is in sight as the book opens on the final few scenes of her quest.
The Radch is a powerful force within the human-occupied worlds and benign in many ways, but it's economy depends on continual expansion and the subjugation of new worlds. Its methods of annexing new populations are brutal and efficient and have long relied on its massive warships, each capable of destroying a planet, each controlled by an artificial intelligence (AI), and each stuffed to bursting with armies both human and ancillary.
Breq, we soon learn, was once an ancillary—a human whose mind has been replaced with an AI and integrated into the ship's mind. She was once number nineteen in one cohort of a large ancillary army controlled by the ship, Justice of Torren, until a catastrophe destroyed the ship and Breq's fellow ancillaries, leaving her alone to pursue her own justice. The story of how that catastrophe came about and how Breq has coped with it is the essence of the book.
Yet it is the detailed world-building of the Radch and its surrounding human and alien polities that sets Ancillary Justice apart from most sci-fi you will find on the shelves. The cultures, the religions, the songs, the clothing, the languages—all beautifully done.
There are some writers (China Miéville, for example) who will dwell luxuriously on the details of a city and its inhabitants for hundreds of pages. There are others (like Ursula le Guin) who have a sharper, less elaborate style and can do the job in a tenth of the words. Ann Leckie is in this latter camp. Like le Guin, she also demonstrates a mastery of the technology of her world and trusts the reader to know enough science (or at least to have read enough sci-fi) to know what she means when she says a character will “take the tether” or “open a gate” in the appropriate context.
Ann Leckie also handles with confidence the tricky business of letting us see into the mind of an ancillary who is as aware of the minds of the twenty others in her cohort as well as of the ship itself, all of whom feel part of a single identity as well as having their own unique perspective and thoughts.
Of course, Ancillary Justice is a first novel and is not without some faults. The plot develops a definite wobble about three-quarters of the way through when Breq seems to realise what the reader has been uncomfortably aware of for some time, that her plan is probably completely futile. This makes the ending seem a little fortuitous for our hero. It is an ending that also raises the difficult question of whether, given the devastating consequences that must follow, Breq did a good thing or a bad thing—a question it would be good to see addressed in subsequent volumes.
The fact that Breq is an AI is part of the charm of the book and the character's peculiar ways of thinking are very nicely and consistently portrayed; however, the story is a third person telling from Breq's perspective and, after a while, the flat, almost emotionless voice of the narrator becomes wearing.
One longs for some more emotional color, for a less monotonous voice. It is to the author's credit that she maintains Breq's voice to the very end (a small technical triumph, actually), but especially during moments of high drama that absence of emotion creates a disconnect between Breq and the reader.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent book by a writer who deserves a large and loyal following. It was an impressive first novel. By most writers' standards, it would be an impressive last novel. Having created such an exquisite future world, it is good to hear that Ann Leckie plans at least two more novels to be set there. This is first-class space opera from a writer who could probably tackle any other sci-fi sub-genre with similar aplomb. Let's all hope she keeps them coming.