After reading about all the awards Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice had accumulated, I just had to read it. It won the 2014 Nebula, Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards for best science fiction novel. I was also intrigued by it being told from the viewpoint of an artificial intelligence.
The novel’s main character is an ancillary, a human body controlled by a colossal starship, the Justice of Toren. The starship is part of the Radch empire, whose main quest is to invade other civilisations and incorporate them into the Radch empire. They rely on human greed to control the civilisations they colonise and incorporate aspects of their religions and cultures into the Radch empire.
The novel is set thousands of years in the future and begins with an ancillary known as Breq on a quest on an isolated ice planet. She seeks a special weapon to kill the leader of the Radch, Anaader Mianaai. While on the planet, Breq rescues a former comrade Seivarden, who had become a drunk and a thief, who then reluctantly accompanies Breq on her quest.
Extended flashbacks take us back nineteen years when Breq was connected and controlled by her starship. In alternating chapters we find out why Breq wants to kill Anaader Mianaai, a feat that seems impossible, or at least pointless, as Anaader Mianaai has multiple bodies in many locations over her huge empire.
An interesting thematic device in the novel is that the Radchaai do not distinguish people by gender. Every sex is referred to as she. This has the reader trying to work out, along with Breq, whether a character is a he or a she. To aid in her quest, Breq assumes the identity of a non-Radchaai. She worries her true identity will be revealed if she incorrectly refers to a male as a she.
When Breq is still part of the Justice of Toren each unit is privy to the thoughts and actions of the others, so the story is often told from multiple ancillary unit viewpoints. The jumping from the mind of one ancillary to the next is handled very well by the author.
Breq is a very believable creation. The novel is written in first person so it is all spent in Breq’s mind. As an ancillary her emotions are kept in check. If ordered to kill she complies without hesitation. Breq makes no moral judgements about the Radch and the ruthless way they kill those who resist assimilation. But Breq is loyal, and when that loyalty is destroyed she decides to act.
The story is a suspenseful slow build. It is more of a mystery novel than an action or thriller novel. It is full of detail as the AI observes the world around it and decides how to interact with it, but not in a robotic way, as Breq has been observing and interacting with humans for hundreds of years. She is no Data or Seven of Nine. She is much more real and complex than they are.
Ancillary Justice is an intelligent novel for readers that want to engage with and think about their science fiction. It is Anne Leckie’s first novel.