Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice book cover
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2013
Cover art by John Harris

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has been on my “To Read” list since it swept all of the major SF awards last year. I enjoyed it tremendously.

This is old-fashioned space opera, reminiscent of the classics of the Golden Age. Unlike a lot of modern space opera (which I adore, for the record) Ms. Leckie is less concerned with the technology that makes galaxy- and time-spanning civilization possible and offers us a story focused on character and plot.

There can be a fine line between a work that makes purposeful use of genre tropes and one which is merely derivative. In the case of Ancillary Justice, compelling arguments have been made on both sides. The distinction depends largely on how kind the reader wants to be.

Because I enjoyed this novel as much as I did, I choose to believe that Ms. Leckie uses genre tropes intentionally.

At heart, Ancillary Justice is a revenge yarn. The plot jumps back and forth between the present and the past, developing backstory in parallel with the main plot. This narrative structure is very effective, revealing the central mystery of the main character’s motivation a little bit at a time, on an as-needed basis. It allows Ms. Leckie to keep the tension elevated throughout the novel.

On the other hand, there are times when I felt like exchanges between characters leave a tad too much unsaid. But I also never felt that I was missing any important information, so this shouldn’t be taken as too substantial a criticism.

The central conceit of the novel is wonderful. Telling the story from the first-person perspective of a character who’s the AI of a colossal starship now trapped in a single human body, and the reality of a world where a single mind can occupy multiple bodies simultaneously, allows the author to explore the nature of what it means to be human—even what it means to be an individual—from a unique perspective. This elevates the work to something more than just a revenge yarn.

Unlike a lot of Golden Age space opera, Ms. Leckie’s character development is top notch. The characters she presents in Ancillary Justice are fascinating, nuanced individuals, products of their culture and upbringing while also rebelling against the limitations imposed on them. These are complex and believable people.

The setting Ms. Leckie created for the novel is fairly standard as galactic empires go. She adds the twist of making religion central to it and the story spends most of its time on worlds at the edges of so-called civilization. She explores the possibilities of language—the difficulty of mutual comprehension—in a way that most space opera ignores.

My favorite thing about Ancillary Justice is how Ms. Leckie handles gender. She makes gender a defining characteristic of these far-future cultures, addressing it through language, behavior, and clothing. In this way, it reminds me a bit of some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. Throughout, the default pronoun for all people—male and female alike—is “her”. I find that the feminine pronoun frees the work to some degree from ingrained cultural biases and encourages a greater freedom of imagination in the reader.

If I have one quibble with the book, it’s the names of the characters. One of the big challenges of writing SF is coming up with names for characters, races, empires, etc., that sound futuristic and quasi-alien but are still believably natural. Ms. Leckie misses the mark in this novel—the names she came up with are a bit too self-conscious in their “science fiction”-ness. They’re not so bad, though, as to impede my enjoyment.

Ancillary Justice is fine space opera and a worthy beginning to a proposed trilogy of novels. It manages to be both pleasingly old-fashioned and meaningfully innovative. I really liked it.

I wish I could end my review there. Honestly, that’s the review this novel deserves.

Unfortunately, there’s something else about the work that bothers me and I feel compelled to address it:

Ancillary Justice won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, British Science Fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards all in the same year.

And I can’t quite figure out why.

This novel is very good—but it’s not “sweep every major award” good. If it had won just one or two of these awards, I’d say it’s entirely deserving.

It won all of them. With those credentials, I expected something utterly mind-blowing, something genre-defining. Something more than just “very good”. I expected something in the same class as giants like Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds.

But it’s not. Ancillary Justice is very good SF but it’s not that good. I enjoyed it, it’s unique and interesting, but it didn’t blow my mind.

As good as this novel is—and it’s very good—it’s not quite as good as it should be to have racked up the accolades it received.

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