Imperial Radch Trilogy
by Ann Leckie
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Ancillary Justice / 2: Ancillary Sword / 3: Ancillary Mercy
I had never heard of Ms. Leckie before this novel (her first) won the 2013 Nebula. She has published several shorter works, but it's been a long time since I've been able to keep up with the magazines and original anthologies, many of which are now digitally published. That's not likely to change much in the future, but I would like to sample some of her earlier work since Ancillary Justice is impressive for not only its world-building and character development, but also for a couple of literary techniques I can't recall in any other story. Technique might not be the right word...maybe perspective?
UPDATE: Ancillary Justice is also the winner of the 2014 Hugo.
First-person narrative is difficult even for the best of authors, but what if your narrator is not an individual, and not even human in the strictest sense? Well, she was human at one time, but that was before she died, then later when she was reanimated it was as just one ancillary component of a multi-consciousness which in turn was controlled by an artificial intelligence whose overall existence was as a military ship known as Justice of Toren. Each Justice in the fleet is captained by a human, with several human lieutenants under her command. Each lieutenant is in charge of twenty ancillaries, and each group of ancillaries is identified by an alphabetical moniker (based on religious names), beginning with One Amaat, on down through the ship, with the lowest identified in this book being One Var. The group most important to this story is One Esk, under the command of Lieutenant Awn.
I suppose this has to be classified as Space Opera, and while it does have a lot of the trappings of that sub-genre, it's more character driven, as well as more planet-bound than most. There are very few scenes in space, much less space battles. The expansionist empire at the heart of the story is the Radchaai, which uses its fleet of Justice ships and its ancillaries to "annex" planets in order to build up a buffer zone for protection of its homeworld. It's very similar to how the Romans expanded their empire, incorporating many of the conquered into its armies. All of the ancillaries are taken from peoples killed during these annexations, none are native Radchaai. Non-Radchaai call the ancillaries "corpse soldiers." The ancillaries, as well as the human soldiers, are enhanced with various implants, including armor that can be activated at will, and communication devices so that all are in constant contact with each other. All ancillaries can access the visual and audio feeds of any other ancillary of its ship, not just those of its twenty unit cadre. That means that each Justice is also continually monitoring not only all of its ancillaries but also all humans within its sphere of influence.
The Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, has the capability of monitoring every Justice in the fleet, along with lesser transport ships known as Mercies and Swords. Also, all planets, orbiting outposts and space stations are controlled by A.I.s, which can also be monitored by Mianaai. How does she do that? She has cloned herself into thousands of copies. She can be anywhere and everywhere at once, also sharing any information obtained with all her other copies. The Mianaai consciousness has existed for over three thousand years. Just as an individual can become schizophrenic, so can a multi-conscious being. Any component of Anaander Mianaai that disagrees with a certain policy could begin to work against her other selves, and it seems they also have the ability to hide those activities from her other selves. Which can be trusted? Which are working toward her goals, which are scheming against her? Not only does she not know which of her own selves she can trust, due to incidents in the past where captains or lieutenants, and even a Justice itself, have balked at carrying out orders they deemed illegal or immoral, Minnaai is also distrustful of everyone. As I said, schizophrenic.
The story begins on the cold world of Nilt, which is outside of Radch territory. At this time the narrator is identified as Breq, but we later learn she was once Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen. She is the only ancillary, the only anything, left from that ship, which had been destroyed nearly twenty years earlier. She is in search of a person whom she believes has an alien artifact that will enable her to complete her revenge. Chapters alternate between this period with that of twenty years prior, with One Esk Nineteen just one ancillary in service to Lieutenant Awn in the town of Ors on the planet Shis'urna, five years after its annexation. The narration in these segments is fragmented, giving us the perspective of all the ancillaries, both on the planet and those still aboard Justice of Toren, along with the perspective of the ship itself and its discussions with its captain and other officers. There is unease brewing between different ethnic groups in Ors, and Lieutenant Awn and One Esk are caught in the middle. Awn is also faced with disrespect from many of the other lieutenants from Justice of Toren. Radchaii society is rigidly caste oriented, with most military and government positions filled by those from the prestigious houses. Awn is from a lowly family, her father a restaurant owner and her mother a cook. She has obtained her position solely on her own skills and aptitude, but is still ridiculed by her "betters."
That other perspective I mentioned in the first paragraph? Maybe you've noticed that I've referred to all the characters as she or her. Radch society is also rigidly gender neutral, not only in its language but also in dress and comportment. Males can have long hair, use makeup and jewelry, and females can have short-cropped hair and dress in a manner we would consider masculine. It doesn't matter, there's no distinction between the two genders at any level of society. Breq (aka One Esk Nineteen) has difficulty distinguising male from female on Nilt, which being outside Radch territory has a language, and culture, that is gender specific. Thus she refers to everyone as she, and continues to do so even after she is corrected by a native. I cannot tell you the gender of Breq, nor of Awn or Anaander Mianaii, or any other character in the novel. I might guess, but I have no confidence I would be right. Every reader is likely to identify certain characters by gender, but it would be through their own prejudices. I visualized Breq as male, and Seivarden Vendaai (a Radch human she encounters on Nilt) as female, Lieutenant Awn as female and Lieutenant Skaaiat as male. I'm probably wrong. In an after-book interview, Leckie refers to Breq as she, but I still don't think that is definitive since she may have simply been keeping within the gender neutral tone of the book. And you know what? It doesn't matter. All characters should be judged by their actions and their words regardless of gender. I don't think this necessarily makes the book a feminist tale, yet it is a very refreshing perspective. Your reaction to it will say more about you than it does about Leckie's intentions.
In conclusion, a very intriguing and enjoyable book. It gives refreshing perspectives on both individuality and societal groups, of nature versus nurture, of conscience and consequence, of courage and compassion. It is also unpredictable. There is only one thing I guessed correctly ahead of time, that being the impetus behind Breq's quest. That happened a bit more than halfway through the book, and although I won't say what that was, I will say it was something that happened before the destruction of Justice of Toren. The next novel will be a sequel to this one, and while I generally would like to see more stand-alone novels rather than (potentially endless) series, due to the strengths of this one I'm actually looking forward to it.
The second book in the trilogy, Ancillary Sword, has already won this year's BSFA, and been nominated for a Hugo, Nebula and Locus, and I'll update this page if it wins one or more of those. [EDIT: It won the Locus] I'll try to keep from reiterating too much from the previous book, so if you haven't read either it might be best to refer back to the review above if anything here is confusing.
There were elements of Sword just as interesting and well-written as anything in Justice, yet it doesn't have the same emotional impact. The novelty of the gender neutral narrative is past, although it is still intriguing. Think of this as similar to the second movie in a franchise, one in which you are already familiar with the characters and situations, what you hope for is deeper exploration of character and more plot revelations. Breq is the only character we learn much more about, but I still can't say with certainty if she's male or female. Another hold-over from the first book is Seivarden Vendaai, now serving under Breq in her new assignment as captain of Mercy of Kalr. There is a brief appearance by Anaander Mianaai in the opening pages, and even though this embodiment of her consciousness is supposedly on the "right" side of the political divide, it is clear that Breq can't help being suspicious of her motives. A new character on the ship is Lieutenant Tisarwat, a seventeen-year-old raw recruit, into whom Mianaai has implanted tech to make her just one more extension of her consciousness, but Breq has surmised this and has those implants removed. Tisarwat still retains memories of being controlled by Mianaai, and thus suffers from guilt and remorse. One thing I wasn't clear about is whether the Mianaai that manipulated Tisarwat is the same one Breq conversed with in the beginning, or if it was one of her rivals that survived the battle on Omaugh Station at the end of the first book. If one of the "good" Mianaais, why was it necessary to hijack Tisarwat for surveillance when she could get the same information from Mercy of Kalr's A.I.?
The main conflict between the various factions of Mianaai's consciousness is whether or not to further expand the Radch Empire. The technology to create ancillary soldiers is what drove the expansion, since those soldiers were derived from conquered peoples on annexed planets. It had been decreed that ancillaries would no longer be used, instead all ships would be manned by Radchaai humans. Breq, in addition to being captain of a Mercy, is also named Fleet Captain and sent to the Athoek system, although Mianaai gives her no details as to her mission. That is something Breq and her crew will have to figure out on their own. In the midst of correcting mismanagement of the space station orbiting the planet, as well as inequities in the treatment of indigenous peoples on Athoek, Breq stumbles across a conspiracy of ancillary body smuggling.
This is a relatively short book, which only teases the overall story arc. We learn a lot about Breq, her sense of justice and compassion, plus a lot about the corruption of the current system. What we don't get is any resolution, which will have to wait for the third book due out later this year. I understand why the first book had "justice" in the title, both because it involved the ship Justice of Toren as well as Breq seeking justice for the death of someone close to her. The third book will be Ancillary Mercy, which seems to me a better title for the second. First, Breq is in command of a Mercy ship, plus she exhibits merciful compassion to many she encounters. Yes, she does also come into command of Sword of Atagaris, but that is not until the final pages. Just a guess of what will happen in the next book leads me to believe the Sword is going to fall on the guilty parties when all is said and done. We'll have to wait and see if Leckie chose the titles in the correct order. A good book, although not as compelling as the first, and I hope the conclusion to the story is worth the wait.
It was definitely worth the time to finish the trilogy, and I am sure I will re-read it someday, but all together as one story the next time. I don't insist on a lot of action in my SF, but there was perhaps too much talk and not enough action in books two and three, and what action there was was anti-climactic and inconclusive. The first book was the best, and I still think the titles of the other two should have been reversed. The titles were originally going to be Justice of Toren, Sword of Atagaris and Mercy of Kalr, later changed to highlight that the story was being told by an ancillary. Leckie saw no reason to change the order otherwise, even when rewrites lessened the significance of the ship Atagaris in the middle book. She says there will be more stories set within the Radch Empire but that Breq would not be a featured character. I hope she reconsiders, and it doesn't matter if Breq's story continues in a sequel or prequel, there's still a lot I want to know. Regardless what the future holds, and in spite of a few minor complaints I have, Ancillary Mercy caps off one of the best trilogies I've ever read.
The overall story arc is about Breq's quest for justice, even more than her quest for vengeance. Ancillaries are not considered human, merely machines, a military tool, even if they had previously been human. Once joined to the A.I. consciousness of a ship or station they had no individual initiative. Or did they? Breq may have been unique, or else just the first ancillary to realize it still had human emotions, and this even before the rest of her was torn away in the destruction of Justice of Toren. Afterwards, she was able to pass as human and gain respect from others, and many continued to show respect even after they learned the truth. Much has been made about the gender neutral society, of the insignificance of gender in assessing a person's worth. That is likely to be the enduring legacy of these books, but there is much more to consider. There is also a dissection of class and economic status, of ethnic or planetary origins, about the abuses of power and whether or not the end justifies the means. Plus, perhaps the most significant exploration, exactly what does it mean to be human? Breq seemed to be on a quest to establish that sentience is enough, which would include ancillaries and artificial intelligences, and that each conscious entity has the right to self-determination. All of these elements combine to form the conclusion that each individual is important, that no arbitrary characteristic of birth or environment should be used to judge them. All are Significant, all are valuable.
That does not mean that all are equal in ability. Some are stronger or more intelligent than others. If this was from decades ago the most common assumption would be that Breq is male and Seivarden female, since the former is strong and the latter weak. The gender neutral tone may have caused some readers to assume the opposite. As I said in my comments on the first book, the way you interpret things will likely be based on your own prejudices or social consciousness. I've seen fan art that has both Breq and Seivarden as females, or androgynous. That is also the case in the cover art of a special edition hardcover of Justice from Subterranean Press. Others show both as male, yet others with Breq male and Seivarden female. The same applies to Lieutenants Awn and Skaaiat from book one. If I interepreted a line toward the end of Mercy correctly, it confirms my opinion that Breq is male. So what? The gender, or sexual orientation, of any character isn't important. This has been optioned for TV by FOX, although it is too soon to know if it will go anywhere. If it is produced, either they consult with Leckie and get the casting right, or make their own decisions about the gender of the characters. Again (repeat after me), it doesn't matter.
If subsequent stories are sequels, it will be interesting to find out if the changes Breq has implemented in and around Athoek spread to the rest of the empire, or will Anaander Mianaai (whichever faction) retain her control? Will others come to view Mianaai, with her implants and forced cloning to replicate herself, as no different than an ancillary? If prequels, here are a few things I need to know. First, how the the Radch Empire began; second, when and how Anaander Mianaai came to power; third, who created the ancillary technology? Was it created by the Radch, acquired in one of their conquests, or was it developed by an A.I.? Even if none of these are answered I'll still probably read and like them since Leckie is very good at sucking you into the story and making you care about her characters. Long live Breq!
Leckie's latest novel, Provenance, set within the same universe but featuring new characters and settings.
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