Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren—a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
In some way writing a review of Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice feels somewhat redundant, as it seems as if everyone has read this book or has at least heard about it. In fact, it swept the SFF awards in 2014 in an unprecedented way. On the other hand, much of the conversation about Ancillary Justice has focussed on Leckie’s choice of gender pronouns and treatment of gender in the narrative. In my opinion this does a disservice to both the book and the author, because Ancillary Justice is far more than an experiment in gender approach. In fact, my attention was much more drawn by the narrative techniques Leckie uses to convey Breq’s dual nature as a ship and an ancillary, and by the question of what it means to be sentient if not autonomous.
Leckie tells her story in two different storylines, one set in the book’s present and one in the past. It is in the past setting that we get to witness the complexity of the relationship between a ship and her ancillaries. Ancillaries are part of the ship, the AI that is the ship can monitor the ancillaries and see out of their eyes, essentially be part of their mind. This allows the ship to be present in several places at once, creating an almost omniscient first person narration, since the book is told in first person throughout. Of course this omniscient first person allows for a greater view of all the action when ancillaries are in different locations at quite a distance from each other or in different rooms, but the scattered viewpoint is especially effective when Justice of Toren has several ancillaries watching the same event from different angles. Early in the book Leckie has a scene where Justice of Toren is talking about herself as being active in a number of placing, casually calling the ancillaries herself, claiming them as part of her own consciousness, effectively erasing them as separate entities. Yet at the same time, there are scenes where the ship is talking in dialogue with one of her Esks, almost verging on talking to herself, but actually not quite doing so, which felt alienating. It was also a good way to remind the reader that Justice of Toren — and Breq for that matter — isn’t human, but an AI and as such has very different priorities. And these reminders are necessary, because both the ship and Breq feel very human at many points in the book.
Breq’s humanity and Justice of Toren’s personhood are a continuing theme in the series and are set up as a question from the beginning quite clearly. At the time of writing this review, I’ve read the entire trilogy — not quite, but almost back to back — so it is hard not to look at the series as a whole and tease out what started where. Yet the plight of the AI ships and stations who are sentient individuals, but cannot be autonomous is shown from the start. The AI’s in Leckie’s world are powerful presences. While created and consisting of non-organic matter, they feel love, anger, grief and other emotions and feel them deeply. Despite this they are considered machines, meant to obey their Radchaai masters, which quickly felt wrong to me as the reader. In a similar manner, the ancillaries are literally slaved and slaves to their ship. An ancillary is created from a human body, most often those captured in war, the individual’s mind wiped and their body fitted with cyborg components so they can be accessed by the ship, much like separate nodes in a computer network. They are like a mirror to the ship AI’s: ships are sentient and individuals, but they cannot act autonomously, while ancillaries are sentient and autonomous, but at their core no longer individuals. In fact, Breq doesn’t consider herself human anymore.
Breq’s view of her own humanity very much influences her actions and decisions throughout the novel’s present-time storyline; it lends her a certain careless disregard for her own safety and survival. To me this came to the fore most clearly in her relationship with Seivarden, one of Justice of Toren’s former lieutenants. Breq saves her without quite knowing why, whether it is simply the right thing to do, out of a sense of loyalty or duty, or even just pity. And despite this and the fact she didn’t even care for Seivarden all that much in the past, Breq goes through great trouble to help Seivarden get back on her feet. Seivarden for her part was also a quite fascinating character. The way Leckie deals with her addiction and how she transfers her dependence on kef to a dependence on Breq to give her direction and meaning was both heart-breaking and fantastic. Heart-breaking because that transference prevents her from truly healing and fantastic because it felt real.
Those were just the things that stood out to me way more than the gender pronoun element of the book, which I’d honestly largely stopped actively noticing by chapter five or so. Of course, there is much more that makes Ancillary Justice a fantastic read. There is the awesome setting of Radchaai space which is endlessly fascinating. There are numerous mysteries to solve, both past and present. And there is some amazing action to be found in the book. Ancillary Justice is a riveting read and if you haven’t yet read it, you absolutely should, because it is bloody amazing.