The novel “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie was published for the first time in 2013. It’s the first book in the Imperial Radch series. It won the prizes Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, Locus and Seiun as best novel of the year and the Kitschies Golden Tentacle as best debut novel of the year.
Breq has been following her plan for almost twenty years when she runs into Seivarden Vendaai, a Radchaai officer she knew a millennium ago, lying into the snow. It’s not her job to take care of her but she decides to rescue her and ends up taking her with her on her return journey to the Radch, involving her in her search for justice.
The spaceship Justice of Toren is part of the Radch fleet in orbit around the planet Shis’urna during the operations connected to its annexation to the Radchaai empire. There’s only a nominal local resistance but Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, is busy in a power struggle with herself with the consequence that many members of the fleet, both humans and spaceships with their ancillaries, are caught in the middle.
Ann Leckie used various elements of space opera, sometimes very classical, for “Ancillary Justice”. There’s an empire called Radch that for millennia has kept on expanding thanks to a fleet of spaceships driven by artificial intelligences that control human bodies called ancillaries. Actually the novel is set mainly on planets but the difference from normal space opera is in a development almost opposite to that typical of this subgenre.
Finding elements of space opera in a novel, one expects it to contain a lot of action with an adventurous style but in “Ancillary Justice” even the occasional presence of moments of that kind is used to develop a plot that is generally introspective and focused on other narrative elements. Ann Leckie uses Breq’s journey to return to the Radch to offer us a considerable amount of information on the culture of that empire and beyond, ranging from the languages to the religions of different peoples.
Language is a crucial element in the series because the Radchaai make no gender distinctions so when Breq tells her story in the first person the female pronoun is used in English for all the characters. Another crucial element is that Breq is an ancillary, born human but not considered as such because she got integrated into a Radch spaceship where an artificial intelligence controls many ancillaries.
What’s behind the fact that Breq is the only body left of a spaceship is one of the key points of the novel, told in different timelines in which the story of Breq’s journey and the events that over 19 years before brought her in search of justice are developed in parallel.
The story of those events allows Ann Leckie to develop the theme of identity in a society in which people can be turned into drones called ancillaries in the service of spaceships and the Lord of the Radch is a kind of gestalt since she has a lot of bodies. Ancillaries are not considered human but what does it mean to be human? In the case of the Lord of the Radch the theme also concerns the nature of power.
In the case of Breq, being a ancillary with the memories of a spaceship makes her often quite inhuman yet her nature leads her to experience emotions and feelings. After having been an ancillary for a very long time twenty years weren’t enough for her to find a new inner balance with the consequence that she’s a complex character full of contradictions.
Reading of “Ancillary Justice” is complex as well because Ann Leckie tries to get the reader immersed in cultures with truly alien characteristics using elements that are only superficially familiar. Especially at the beginning of the novel this can cause confusion and so you need a little patience and attention to start understanding the protagonist, the story that develops around her and the Radch.
It’s a case in which the journey is important and not the destination. Breq’s plan to get justice actually seems rather vague with complications that are sometimes predictable. It seems inevitable that the result is not what she planned in an ending that’s open to further developments that will take place in the sequels.
In “Ancillary Justice” there’s sometimes some action but it’s a type of story that’s more character-based with a pace that tends to be slow. This means that for a story told in the first person the development of the important characters is good.
Despite the difficulties it initially creates, “Ancillary Justice” ended up giving me great satisfaction. If you like novels like this and for you it’s not a problem that the story continues in its sequels I absolutely recommend it.