Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
There are some spoilers in this review, so please be aware.
No book has taken the science-fiction world by storm in recent years the way Ancillary Justice has. It's supporters have been vocal in lavishing praise on it. It picked up virtually every award going in 2014 and, in some ways, it's easy to see why. These days, originality is what seems to grab the votes. Certainly story has less to do with it than it used to. Or did it ever? Sometimes I wish those who judged these things would realise that some people prefer a derivative story, to something fresh and innovative that is completely impossible to get into as a story. Some recent Hugo/Nebula/Arthur C. Clarke nominees have welded themselves into that category.
Perhaps this will disappoint some, but Ancillary Justice frustrated me. It’s a very, very good book, and definitely one of the best science-fiction books of 2014. No question about that – I very much enjoyed it. The themes which run though it are starkly human – vengeance, love, redemption, recovery – drive many great books. The concepts which underpin the setting are fresh, imaginative, clever and richly themed. The setting itself, intricate and powerful, hints at huge scope and an operatic scale for the stories to be told within, and at times the level of detail is enthralling (most often in the context of the military’s structure). The lead character, Breq (or Justice of Toren One Esk 19 as she is much later on), is an ancillary which, in itself, is an intriguing take on POV (although not necessarily completely original). Ancillaries themselves are a stark, ingenious way to characterise the Radch, and to underpin the way in which the story develops. The attempt at a single gender pronoun, at least in part to add colour to the way in which the Radch culture differs so much from our own, was both brave and clever. Reports suggest Leckie refused to change that when asked.
Yet, to me, Ancillary Justice fails to deliver on the promise of a truly great novel. The setting, which that detail hints at, is never fully rendered. There are times when I found it difficult to visualise the places her story unfolded in – they were so often sketched, skirted over, rather than colourfully painted (perhaps Breq for obvious reasons just doesn’t appreciate the details). The story seemed to take a seat behind Leckie’s literary style, and sometimes the pace flagged, especially in the early stages.
Breq as a lead character was always going to be tricky and I was never convinced by the reasons for her driving desire to take on the Lord of the Radch. Moving from her POV as Justice of Toren, and then as the various ancillaries which are commanded by Justice of Toren, is actually seamless. I never experienced a difficulty in picking that up and the concept is something special. Yet, from a pure ‘character/desire’ perspective, I found her relationship with the character who is the catalyst for the driving force of the story itself not deep enough to spark that desire. We know only that the character concerned was one of her ‘favourites’. That character herself, the reason Breq takes on the mission she does, does not exhibit the sort of emotional attachment to the place she is stationed that we would expect, given how events unfold later (and the way the Radchaai are as a society). The way Breq sees it, tapped into the emotions of that character as she is, the character is almost detached and apathetic towards the whole place.
The gender pronoun issue, trumpeted as one of the really insightful aspects of the novel, with comparisons made to Ursula Le Guin, frequently had the effect of dropping me out of the story. Some characters are clearly male, some clearly female, but we are not told about all of them. Why are we told about any of them? If gender is removed as a focal point for characterisation, thus collapsing our assumptions and giving us a clean slate for desires and driving forces, why tell us about any at all? It leaves us wanting to search out the prose to see if we’ve missing key point based on gender. If one character has a physical relationship with another, fine. We still don’t need to know gender.
Story, yes, the most important part – this is the first book in a trilogy, so the story is set to unfold, but it the fulcrum of Breq’s self-imposed mission feels like it is missing so much. There’s a twenty-year gap between the events on Ors and the events which take place with Seivarden. We have the vaguest hints at what Breq does in those years, but not enough to justify her drive over that time and set it out. Also, I found it hard to identify with Breq – although she displays very human desires (perhaps her old self re-asserting itself in her subconscious), her internalised thoughts are often quite bland – I found myself fighting to root for her. I don’t agree with some reviews suggestive of deus ex machina, but I do feel a mite confused by Seivarden – that his (yes, it’s a he) place in the book seems a little convenient. In some ways, it’s a classic B-story which arcs around behind the A-story and intersects at the critical moment, but Seivarden has so little to do that it doesn’t even really fulfil the category of B-story. It’s almost as if he was there to (a) explain the gender pronoun thing a little better, and (b) for Breq to “save the cat” and give us something to root for. Seivarden seems too ambiguous and empty a character to justify Breq’s actions later on.
Pace is slow the begin with – far too slow and there is too much insightful dialogue in relation to the action which actually moves the plot forward. This is what I mean by Leckie’s literary style. There were palpable lapses in tension in the early stages of the book, although plenty of what could be said to be, still underplayed, conflict (between Awn and the various factions on Ors, as well as between the factions themselves).
All this said, Ancillary Justice demonstrates an author who is likely to write something truly great, with a prodigious imagination, and is well-worth reading – there are certainly few books released in 2014 which stand up to the scope, imagination and operatic scale of Ancillary Justice.