Book Review: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

cover of Ancillary JusticeEvery where I turn, people are talking about Ancillary Justice.  It’s been nominated for a Nebula Award and a Hugo, and now that I’ve finally read it I can see why.  This book plays with points of view cleverly to tell a complicated story in a deceptively simple way.

Once upon a time there was a vast empire that conquered hundreds of worlds.  With each conquest, the empire took people, wiped their minds, and had artificial intelligences implanted into these bodies.  A starship, such as Justice of Toren, would have an artificial intelligence running the ship and thousands of linked bodies that could be deployed both on and off the ship.

Our story begins with one of the bodies, severed from contact with the ship and with other Ancillaries.  Breq is seeking justice and vengeance upon the leader of the empire.  She struggles with functioning as an individual and with functioning within a variety of alien cultures.  Through a series of flashbacks, we find out what launched Breq on her mission, while in the present Breq navigates political and cultural hurdles on her way to her goal.

Two elements of that struggle are of particular note: her need to deliberately shape her face into facial expressions to convey or conceal emotion, and her struggles with identifying gender in different cultures.  Breq shows no interest in sex, but she is very much interested in getting what she needs from people, and that means using language properly and avoiding offense, and THAT means keeping track of how gender is identified and discussed in different languages.  In Breq’s native language, there is no gender, so in the book, everyone is described as “her” unless Breq has to specify.  This has a fascinating impact on the reader.  In our culture, the “norm”, the baseline, is white male.  In Breq’s world, the baseline is neutral, but as a reader, I read it as female because she uses “she”.  This means that I found myself picturing almost all the characters as female – a truly liberating experience.  It turns out that the concept “women are people” is a lot easier to grasp when all people are identified as women until further notice.

Because Breq can (initially) see many different things at once, she serves multiple roles as a narrator.  She’s an almost omniscient narrator, able to report on many different events at once.  She’s a personal, first person narrator and her character is amazingly relatable.  She spends so much time with another character that the other character, Lieutenant Awn, serves as the soul of the book until Breq is able to fill that function herself.  And due to political schemes, she’s an unreliable narrator.

I love it that even though this is Space Opera, it’s ecumenical.  It’s not 1000 pages long.  It is planned as a trilogy, but not a never-ending series.  It uses simple language but is complex in its discussion of music, gender, religion, culture, colonialism, war, ethics, and friendship.  There have, of course, been other stories about hive minds discovering individuality, and sentient ships, but Ancillary Justice doesn’t feel like anything else.  It feels fresh and new and interesting and emotionally compelling.  There’s been a lot of buzz about this book and it’s all deserved!


Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Welcome to the first of my Nebula Review Series.   I’ll be attending the Nebula Awards in May, and am reading the books that have been nominated for best novel in preparation.  This year has a nice mix of science fiction and fantasy and male and female authors, and a surprisingly high romance content in the books, which I just love, of course.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy novel beloved by everybody.  It’s been nominated for both a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award and is getting great reviews everywhere, and I can see why.  It’s a story with a vibrant fascinating setting and interesting characters.  However, I was frustrated by the pacing, which is oddly slow considering the plot elements.

Throne revolves around Adoulla, an aging ghul hunter who is feeling his years, and his assistant Raseed, a young man who is beginning to question the black and white morality of his Dervish training.  Adoulla and Raseed partner with a shape-shifting woman who seeks to avenge her tribe, and a magician and his wife, in an effort to defeat a sinister and darkly magical foe.  Along the way they become caught up in the political maneuverings of the Falcon Prince, who is trying to overthrow the corrupt and cruel Khalif of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

There are so many things to love about this book.  For starters there’s the setting.  It is a gorgeously rendered world straight out of The Arabian Nights.  The city of Dhamsawaat is huge, chaotic, and marvelously rendered – in the sense that it’s described with great technical skill, and in the sense that it’s full of marvels.  The smells and sounds and tastes and traffic jams and gardens all seem so exotic and so real at the same time.  You can see why some of the characters love it passionately and other find it exhausting.

Speaking of characters, they are the real high point of the book.  All of them go through profound and believable changes.  All of them are struggling with different life stages.  I loved that some characters were dealing with the realities of aging while other were dealing with the realities of young adulthood. Every character was a person, not a type.  They are funny, they are annoying, and they are moving.  Although it’s not a romance, there is a lot of romance going on, and I liked it that the love stories that involved older people were just as compelling, if not more so, than that between the cute twenty-somethings.

I did get very impatient with the pacing.  Maybe I was just having a weird week when I read this, or maybe I’ve been damaged by reading too many science fiction novellas in which people meet, have sex, save the world, have sex again, and declare eternal love for one another, usually in that order, in about 30,000 words.  But I have to say that considering the massive amount of carnage contained in these pages, there sure is a lot of chitchat in between battles.  Rasheed and Zamia are constantly saying things to the effect of, “The heck with all this research, let’s go kill something!” and eventually I started to agree with them.  I found this book easy to put down, even when I was only a few chapters from the end.  

Throne is the first book in a planned trilogy, and probably that’s why so much of it felt like set-up.  It ended well, on an emotionally satisfying note, with plenty to write about in the future but a resolved enough conclusion to enjoy as a stand-alone.  I certainly recommend it to fantasy fans, but be prepared for a startling amount of both gore and conversation.