Overview (No Spoilers):
The 2014 Hugo winner for Best Novel, Ancillary Justice is an ambitious space opera that follows Breq and her decade spanning quest for revenge. The story unfolds by vollying between flashbacks and present day, with the large starship, the Justice of Toren and its ancillary, One Esk (Breq), respectively. The large starship is a powerful artificial intelligence system that not only controls itself, but all aspects of life including ancillaries, which are remotely controlled human bodies from lands this empire has conquered. So, to clarify since this confused me longer than it should have, present day Breq is the tiniest component of the all powerful Justice of Toren.
The Radchaai empire has been expanding for over a millenia, conquering planet after planet and breaking the people to their ways. On the last planet to be subjugated, the Justice of Toren discovers something unexpected, with terrible, far reaching consequences. Since that momentous event, Breq has been working almost single mindedly toward revenge, though we have to wait for the flashbacks to reveal what the Justice of Toren discovers and what happens to her ship. Anaander Mianaai, the all powerful leader of the Radch is the target of Breq’s malice, though defeating her seems overwhelmingly hopeless due to the extent of her powers and reach.
I listened to Ancillary Justice as an audiobook and after having to look up the spelling of the names while writing this review, I’m fully convinced I would have never known how to pronounce any of these names had I physically read the book.
The role of gender in this novel was quite unique as I’ve never read a novel (that I can think of) where gender was not designated, instead only brought into front and center when interacting with planets where gender was identified. Due to the Radchaai using she/her for everyone, it causes many awkward interactions for Breq on her quest for revenge as she is constantly trying to make educated guesses at the correct pronoun when addressing various individuals outside of the Radchaai empire.
The pacing of Ancillary Justice can drag, though Leckie makes up for these slow sections by adding in unexpected twists to keep the reader engaged. Every time I started to get comfortable, the story either jumped to a well-timed flashback or involved a surprise that changed the direction of the plot. That said, the flashbacks could be jarring as there was not a clear indicator of time period until you puzzled out that a jump had taken place. Perhaps the physical book had tells that were not captured in the audio such as chapter headings, but eventually the reader got used to these rough transitions.
Overall, Ancillary Justice was an interesting space opera that relied on a mysterious event from the past to be revealed simultaneously with a present day revenge plot, years in the making, to ultimately heightening the suspense and the stakes along the way.
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):
- Skaaiat’s death was hard to read, especially when she’d influenced so many people and we find out that Justice of Toren was the one who pulled the trigger. What happened to her sister? Does Breq ever find her?
- I enjoyed the inclusion of Seivarden into the story. Someone who knew the Justice of Toren/One Esk a thousand years ago. It is hard to even imagine returning to civilization a millennium from now and having everyone and everything you know be dead and outdated, respectively.
- Could One Esk ever ‘grow’ back into the Justice of Toren somehow?
- How will One Esk handle her new role as a captain?
- How will this civil war play out? With Anaander Mianaai splitting into distinct individuals, how can anyone tell which side is the ‘good’ side? It would be so messy and complicated.