My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Before I continued my sweep of reviews of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel–and in particular, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, I had to go back and get caught up on Ancillary Justice. And wow, am I glad I did. I’m very late to the game on this book, but I can see why it won ALL THE THINGS last year. Much has been said already about what Leckie pulls off with this novel, not only with the gender-agnostic society occupied by the main characters, but also with the dual plotline involving our protagonist, Breq. But I do have some thoughts on both.
Re: the gender-agnosticism of the Radch, this didn’t strike me as quite the Revelation(TM) as it might have done if I hadn’t read Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. But I have, and so the notion of people referring to one another as “she” no matter what their actual physical gender wasn’t particularly startling to me. I did appreciate how the worldbuilding allowed that even if the Radchaai’s language was gender-agnostic, the people themselves still had physical gender; the author has herself described that the Radchaai are after all humans, so yes, they do still have actual physical gender. This is supported in the text, when non-Radchaai react to gender cues that Breq has to work to actually parse.
That said, I’m of two minds about it. Half of me certainly delighted in being able to read a story wherein, if I so chose, I could imagine every single character as female. The other half of me wishes that Leckie would have gone further and used truly neutral pronouns–while at the same time, with my writer hat on, I can understand how that might have made her book harder to digest for the vast majority of readers. We do, after all, live in a still predominantly two-gender society, and furthermore, one which still considers “male” the dominant gender. There are factions of SF readers who have trouble admitting that women can star in SF novels–never mind write them. Heads already explode at trying to handle that. Asking them to handle people who don’t fit so easily into a gender binary is probably asking too much. (Though yeah, I’d like to see it happen anyway.)
And, re: the dual nature of the plotline in this book: yes, we’ve got a non-linear plot here, but one which has a coherent structure nonetheless, jumping back and forth between “present” time and a point twenty years prior. Once you get into the rhythm of it, you can follow along pretty clearly, even without obvious markers in chapter headers or anything of that nature. I appreciated that the book expected me to be clever enough to keep up.
But all of the above pertains to worldbuilding and plot structure. What about our protagonist? I loved Breq/One Esk Nineteen/Justice of Toren, and the entire notion of her being one segment of an entire ship’s consciousness. The book does a wonderful job at portraying what that multiplicity is like, even as it throws strong implications at you about the horrifying practices that make ancillaries for Swords and Mercies and Justices in the first place. But Breq in general is an awesome character, both as a ship and as the now-sole ex-ancillary bent on killing the Lord of the Radch. Breq’s body may be human (and there are hints that that body’s original personality might be recoverable), but her consciousness is not. Yet there are little quirks and nuances throughout Justice of Toren’s portrayal that tell you that the Ship has had literal centuries of time to absorb personality traits from all of its ancillaries. And to be sure, I’m particularly partial to how Justice of Toren liked to sing. Often with multiple mouths at once.
I do have to admit that despite the gender-agnosticism of Radchaai society, I kept looking for cues as to the genders of characters–notably, Seivarden, but others as well. I caught myself doing it, and in fact tried to force myself not to once I realized what I was doing, because I think that was part of the book’s overall point. Though in Seivarden’s case, gender cues are in fact explicitly called out early on, and it’s obvious that Seivarden is in fact male. (And now, writing about that character, I find myself actively torn between saying ‘her’ and saying ‘him’ because HA YES I see you what did there, Leckie.)
Plot-wise, I found the whole thing very focused, honed to crystalline clarity, with the dual plots ultimately leading to an intriguing and explosive resolution. Breq’s grudging caring for Seivarden is an excellent counterpoint to the drama that unfolds on Shis’urna, and Justice of Toren’s eventual destruction, with One Esk Nineteen as the only survivor. Overall, it was a distinct pleasure to read, particularly as preparation for going straight into Ancillary Sword. Five stars.
(Editing to add: and OH YES, I totally forgot to mention: in the Ancillary Justice Movie In My Brain, Breq is totally played by Summer Glau.)