Ann Leckie earned lavish praise for Ancillary Justice and a place in history as the first author to win the Nebula, Arthur C Clarke, and Hugo prizes in the same year. She creates a fascinating world of a cruel galactic empire, the Radch, the has been ruled by Anaander Minaai for 3000 years. Minaai exists as a group mind in a 1000 bodies all of them disposable and the empire she rules appears to regard her billions of subjects as disposable too. The main character and first person narrator of the novel is a ship called Justice of Toren. That ship was once a person a 1000 years ago and was turned into an artificial intelligence that runs the ship, which is largely staffed by ancillaries - other former persons kept in cold storage until they are turned into very talented soldiers. Leckie acknowledges that the real world reference point for the Radch is the Roman Empire and this ancillary system comes across as a particularly cruel adaptation of slave soldiers in the Roman Army, except that these slaves would never earn their freedom. In fact, these ancillaries are closer to the original meaning of zombies as still living humans reduced to unquestioning service of the master.
The story is told in two time streams: in one Justice of Toren and her many ancillaries are pacifying a recently conquered world, while much later she is just Breq the only surviving ancillary from the destroyed Justice of Toren. Most of Breq's storyline occurs on a planet outside the Radch empire (or Radchspace). Breq is on a quest to find a gun that will enable her to exact revenge and in the process comes across the drug addict Seivarden, who was once a Lieutenant (a non-ancillary post) on Justice of Toren. As part of Breq's story is the aspect for which Ancillary Justice became unjustly famous: the Radch do not distinguish between genders and everyone is addressed as female, so much so that Breq makes social faux pas comments when operating outside Radchspace.
As the novel moves towards its denouement in becomes the story of Breq alone and this is a much more disappointing point of the story. The climax is rather an anti-climax and feels like setting the scene for the novel becoming the first in a series. It does not have a cliff hanger, but more a sense of there being a cliff somewhere in the distance. Nonetheless this novel is worthy of the prizes it was showered with, not because of the gender theme, as that is more a mind-play with the reader than a major theme. It is the main character as a multi-bodied ship AI and the slow reveal of what has happened to Breq and Seivarden that make this a great novel that should go on to achieve classic status. The ending is a disappointment, but only in the context of a stunning achievement.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved