JUSTICE WILL COME TO THE EMPIRE
A MULTIFACETED PROTAGONIST EMBARKS UPON A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, TO RIGHT A WRONG. A QUEST THAT MAY BRING DOWN AN EMPIRE
(Imperial Radch, Book 1)
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Paperback, 386 Pages
Date: 1st October 2013
I am always wary about reading a novel that has won multiple prestigious awards, and garnered copious amounts of critical praise. Admittedly, much of this caution is the by-product of my cynicism. All too frequently I harbour suspicions that the awards and praise is the result of bandwagon jumping; that once a handful of influential reviewers have published glowing, rave reviews, numerous other people subsequently feel obliged to do likewise, making everyone else reluctant to be the dissenting voice.
There is no question in my mind that this can and does happen. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself how many people erroneously parrot the opinion that the wildly overrated, Citizen Kane, is the best film ever made; some of whom have probably never even watched it. Or how many people falsely claim that the glorified boy-band, The Beatles, are the greatest band of all time.
If such a bandwagon was instigated for the début novel of American author Ann Leckie, I feel compelled to jump on board, without reservation. So it is with great pleasure that I hereby declare Ancillary Justice to be very much deserving of all its success.
I don’t often enjoy reading space opera these days, it is a sub-genre that is all too often meandering and formulaic. But this book is a different kettle of fish, entirely. Ancillary Justice is unquestionably one of the most original and inventive stories I’ve had the privilege to read in a long while; an instant classic that I hope doesn’t become an albatross around the neck of the author. Setting the bar so high for one’s self by writing such an accomplished novel, especially a début, invariably means that all subsequent works will be judged against it. To this day, I’m still wondering when, or even if, Richard Morgan will surpass his amazing début novel, Altered Carbon.
Assuming an interest in this book has just been sparked, you may now be wondering what it’s actually about. In response, it could be said that Ancillary Justice is the story of a centuries old artificial intelligence, confined to a once human body, on a mission to avenge an act of betrayal: A mission that if successful could tear apart the empire it was created to serve. But such a description would be short-changing Leckie’s novel as it doesn’t come close to encompassing what you will encounter in this exceptional tale, nor how well written and constructed it truly is.
When thinking upon how thorough the author’s world building is for her fictional universe, it is easy to lose sight of the length of the story. This is not a long novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it is by no means a light read to be enjoyed while pre-occupied with other matters. Ancillary Justice is a book that demands your full and undivided attention. Anyone who is unable to give it will struggle to follow the story, never mind actually appreciate such things as how well thought out Leckie’s ideas are, nor how effective the manner in which she has structured her narrative, nor just how much information she is able to impart about the culture, history, theology and politics of the Radchaai civilisation; an entity that can be likened to a space faring Roman Empire.
Perhaps the most impressive element of the story is its unique protagonist. As briefly touched upon earlier, the main character is not exactly a person, but an artificial intelligence in a once human body. Even then, Leckie’s hero (or heroine, I can’t decide which) is so much more than just, Breq, the soldier on a mission who readers are initially introduced to, on the frozen planet Nilt, when the story begins. This intriguing protagonist is simultaneously the A.I. of a vast, sentient military space ship, the Justice Of Toren; the assorted groups of reanimated “corpse soldiers”, called ancillaries, that populate the various decks of the ship; as well as each individual ancillary soldier of every group.
The A.I. doesn’t simply just control all these differing segments, but it also sees, hears and feels everything they experience, so the ancillaries essentially act as extensions of the ship. For all intents and purposes, this dynamic means that for much of the duration of the book, the main character is at once the Justice Of Toren, the One Esk group of ancillaries, and Breq, the assumed identity of the nineteenth ancillary of One Esk.
This creative decision by the author, in her conception of the story’s protagonist, was a stroke of genius. It undoubtedly provided the catalyst for so much that is great about the book; though it surely wasn’t without its huge challenges also. As the story is narrated in the first person, it must have been incredibly difficult to determine how to depict the actions and experiences of an artificial intelligence that can be multiple entities in multiple locations at the same time, without causing confusion for prospective readers. Yet Leckie managed to successfully pull it off with aplomb, breaking free of the usual constraints imposed by a first person perspective, and providing readers with an almost omniscient view of proceedings when necessary.
In fact, the most likely source of (temporary) bewilderment is unrelated to the multifaceted nature of the protagonist. During the first chapter of the book there is sure to be confusion as to why Breq refers to every person “she” encounters by the female pronoun, even when it’s apparent that the person “she” is interacting with is male. Fortunately the author addresses this matter very quickly making it easy to accept this little quirk which continues for the duration of the story. This idea was actually a nice touch, as it happens; in the real world people habitually refer to ships and other vehicles as she and her, so to have the A.I. of a space ship do likewise in reference to people has a certain symmetry.
Another aspect of Ancillary Justice that is really good is how Leckie decided to structure her narrative. The story follows two time-lines concurrently: the present time-line in which lone ancillary, One Esk segment nineteen, in the guise of Breq, pursues a two decade long, clandestine quest to find an ancient artefact; a lost weapon that “she” must acquire in order to complete “her” revenge mission. The second time-line follows the events nineteen years earlier that set Justice Of Toren on a collision course with the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. These events not only help to elucidate Breq’s motivation, but give real insights into the workings of the Radchaai civilisation, as well as some very significant historical moments that helped to shape the empire in the present.
Ancillary Justice is a fantastic read; so much so it’s hard to believe that it is a début novel. Long before reaching the conclusion, you will know that you’re reading something rather special that won’t end in disappointment. It is particularly gratifying that at the conclusion of the story Leckie avoided the temptation of writing a cliffhanger ending, intended to set up a sequel. Although it is the first book of a trilogy, Ancillary Justice has a definitive beginning, middle and end. It is able to stand on its own, regardless of whatever may transpire in the two subsequent instalments of the trilogy.
There is actually a great deal more that could be added in praise of Ancillary Justice, but there’s no reason to give too much away to those of you who have yet to read it. The less you know going in the more of a treat it will be. All you really need to know is that this is the most original and coherent space opera you’ve not yet read. Not for nothing did Ancillary Justice bag both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award for Best Novel, making Ann Leckie a name to keep a close eye on in the years to come. It will be interesting to discover whatever else she has up her sleeve in the future; the remaining two instalments of her trilogy have a lot to live up to.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.