Thoughts: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This has been on my list for over a year, and I assume Karlie, who recommended it to me, despaired of my ever getting round to it, but slow and steady wins the race, am I right?

Spoilertastic thoughts below.

Firstly, Ancillary Justice is amazing. Everyone said it, and it was true.

This is going to be one of those times when I feel sort weird about nitpicking one book when others get essentially free passes from me – Spuggy pointed out this is possibly the first time I’ve had problems with a book since I started recording my feelings here, even though I’m reading a paranormal series about a werewolf radio host that isn’t, and never claims to be, deathless prose. But I think readers will understand (and I touched on this here) that different books are often judged by different standards. We want different things from different books and rate them according to that, rather than an objective set of criteria. I think of it in terms of expecting more from the clever kid in the class (of course, this analogy doesn’t necessarily hold 100%, because writing a successful easy read takes real skill, of course, as anyone who’s read a mediocre book in their lives can attest). A book I’ve picked up for an easy, fluffy read can get away with a lot that a book I’m reading for its innovation and complexity can’t. Similarly, books built on experimental foundations can get away with a lot that a book relying on conventional tropes can’t.

So please forgive my inconsistent judgements.

I found Ancillary Justice a little hard to get into, but that’s partly because I’d just finished an easy read and partly because of my main problem with the book: of the two plot threads, one in the past and one in the present, that interweave through the first half, I found one vastly more interesting than the other. This is just one of those things that goes hand in hand with the structure – when two plots are so different, every reader will probably prefer one to the other for whatever personal reasons, and that’s unavoidable. But I found the past storyline so much more interesting than the present storyline that it was sort of a problem. The saving grace was that the past was so interesting that there was never any danger of me putting the book down because I needed to know what happened. I was forming half-baked theories and predictions all over the shop (all wrong, because as I’ve said before, I’m not an astute reader…) whereas the present storyline was all about cryptic hinting that didn’t get under my skin as much, because I knew they’d be resolved through the retelling of the past.

It’s a really thorny problem, and one that I honestly can’t think of any way around. There are several reasons why the present storyline in the first half of the book didn’t grab me.

  1. I’m not always the biggest fan of being dropped into worlds other than our own without explanation. Totally personal choice, I know. Ancillary Justice has a pretty cold opening (also literally HA HA HA), and it didn’t help that most of the characters weren’t very sympathetic.
  2. It was really slow-moving. People who’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, you know what I mean here. Two storylines have to be manoeuvred into position but one is much closer to the goal than the other. The past storyline raced along while the present one spun its wheels a bit waiting for it to catch up. No real way to solve this though, because writing it chronologically would have resulted in a weird structure bridged by a big timeskip. It also wouldn’t have worked as separate volumes, I don’t think. There wasn’t two books’ worth of stuff in there and it would have been a shame to have to pad either of them out to that end.
  3. Lieutenant Awn is better than Seivarden.
  4. I really loved seeing Breq interact with humans and seeing her watch other humans interacting and seeing her react to humans interacting with her. Leckie got down the space opera’s AI perfectly, and I loved it. The characterisation was perfect, the mix of total obedience and independent thinking, the things which were just accepted and the things which weren’t. Observer/actor. UGH so good. The present storyline took a lot of that out – Breq was alone and cut off from most of herself, and she was on a weird little lonely planet with only Seivarden for company a lot of the time. She was passing as human as well, so though that brings its own interesting dynamic (I really really loved seeing common space opera AI scenarios from the other side) it wasn’t as cool to me as her multi-present ship/ancillaries self.
  5. I wanted to see Awn and Skaaiat get it on.
  6. Not enough politics? Comparing it to the past storyline at least, which was full of juicy scheming. Same with culture. Sorry Nilters, your home is a cultural backwater compared to Ors.

So I know why it was done that way, and I can’t think of a better way to do it, but them’s the breaks.

Once the past caught up to the present, the present storyline really kicked off though. Totally redeemed.

OK, yes, I have to address the gender thing. The gender thing, i.e., the Radchaai language which doesn’t recognise gender and where everyone is referred to as ‘she’, is basically all I knew about Ancillary Justice going in. I thought it was interesting and cool, but it didn’t seem a lot to build a book on, let alone a trilogy. But Ancillary Justice isn’t a book with just one cool idea in it (see Gene Wolfe for other writers who aren’t satisfied with just one cool idea) – it also has the AI point of view thing, which in other hands and other circumstances would be the big draw, and it has the politics, and the sheer meaty, twisty plot.

That said, the gender thing turned out to be even more interesting than I assumed it would be. I feel a bit ashamed admitting this because we’re all supposed to be au fait with the fact that gender is a construct etc etc, but Seivarden’s behaviour in the very beginning, his whining and always wanting to go home and complete uselessness somehow read differently with female pronouns? Like, there was a lot of crying going on, and it occurred to me that the gender thing was really making me read it as a more natural, human reaction to drug withdrawal and Seivarden’s general uselessness rather than imposing masculine traits on it (no manly tears here). I couldn’t really imagine Seivarden being written in that exact way as a man, if you know what I mean? I probably haven’t explained that very well, sorry. It was just very interesting.

Miscellaneous other thoughts:

  • I spent a lot of the book wondering if Seivarden was going to be a Kichijiro (from Shusaku Endo’s Silence) whose point was to just be endlessly disappointing and terrible but also forgiven and looked kindly upon for some noble reason that I’m just not mature enough to appreciate. I was glad that he wasn’t.
  • The planet name “Nilt” reminded me of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy, featuring weird creatures called phagors whose creepy… tongues? are referred to as “milts”. Milt is also a real thing but, er, different.
  • Justice of Toren’s musical habits reminded me of The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey and this pleased me greatly.
  • Really liked the surveillance aspect – that a ship which can see all your biological data and has been around you for a long time can basically make educated guesses at what you’re thinking.

Definitely putting the other two on the list. …Maybe I’ll get to them in less than three years ._.

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