Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews one of the most talked-about debuts of 2013, a sci-fi grand adventure about starship AIs and revenge.
“A promising book that never takes off, has serious pacing issues and a protagonist who is extremely confusing.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Debut novels these days appear to get a lot of traction in the industry. That just might be my relative inexperience, being only in the reviewing sphere for a little over two years, but last year I noted that people talked about debut a LOT, compared to 2012. And one of these most talked-about debuts was Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This is a sci-fi/space opera story about a starship AI which wants revenge and it takes the reader through several years of a galactic conflict and through the mental deterioration of the starship AI in question, relatively speaking. A lot of my reviewer and author friends were quite ecstatic about the book after reading it, and I finally got around to reading it in February. Based on all the positive talk I had been hearing, I was expecting something really good, something ground-breaking.
However, all I found was a book that was incredibly difficult to read, with a confused protagonist and events that were unclear to me. It’s a grand sci-fi adventure sure, but it is not something that connected with me on any level.
The most striking element of the novel is that pretty much every character is female. Or, at the least, almost every character is referred to with the female pronoun. This is an extremely odd and bold choice. It is no secret that in our history and in our fiction, we always refer to ships with the female pronouns, whether we talk about old sailing vessels or starships like the Enterprise and the Andromeda Ascendant what not. In very few cases, we have “male ships”, such as those that can be found in Andromeda. At first, this was quite a fun element, and I enjoyed reading a book where male characters didn’t overshadow the female ones, although the pendulum swung too far in that direction. After a while though, it started to get a bit tiring, because you really don’t meet any male characters unless they are extremely minor to the story. There just wasn’t much to differentiate the characters. And this is something that can work the other way too, with a male-heavy cast and Ann Leckie could have avoided the conundrum if the supporting cast had been more memorable. Which it is not. Far from it.
In fact, the naval force that the novel’s primary character, Breq, is a part of seems to be staffed entirely by women. The starships of this naval force are home to thousands of ancillaries, expendable android soldiers, who are all female.
Then there is the whole ancillary aspect itself. And this is where the novel bears a strong connection, I think, to Andromeda. Whenever it comes to androids in space opera, I personally look at two distinct and important examples of it: Star Trek and Andromeda. In the former, we have Data and Lore from The Next Generation and The Doctor from Voyager. Through them, the writers of the shows explored nuances and ethics of androids being human or becoming human. In Andromeda, we saw how a ship and its attendant AI avatar could each have a distinct personality. Many of the episodes of the show revolved around these concepts and the Andromeda-ship and Andromeda-avatar became two of my favourite characters of the show. In fact, I enjoyed Andromeda more than I enjoyed the other characters, such as Kevin Sorbo’s Dylan Hunt, and that was largely because Lexa Doig did such an amazing job with her role.
The style of the AIs in Ancillary Justice is more akin to that of Andromeda than Star Trek. In Andromeda, we had a ship AI that could remote control an innumerable amount of drones, although they had no personality of their own and were just that, drones. And the concept of the AI avatars wasn’t something that was common per se, but it was an important bit of in-universe tech and lore. What Ann Leckie does in this novel is take that concept further. Each ancillary of a ship possesses its own… independent thoughts, to an extent. They can take action on their own, but such actions are limited. It is a hive mind concept really, where the ancillaries feel safer as a single combined unit rather than as individuals. In the first part of the novel, we often get scenes where several ancillaries are in the picture and the narrative hops around between them. Interesting certainly, but also limited. And there is a scene where the ancillaries are cut off from their base-ship, the Justice of Toren. The effects of that… withdrawal are interesting but once again Ann Leckie doesn’t really go beyond the expected. It’s all cliched really.
What doesn’t help matters, especially in the first half, is the writing in general. Hopping between the ancillaries creates a very confused narrative, especially when you mix in the different times that the overall story is taking place in. One part of the story is set in the past, to explain why Breq, a cut-off ancillary of the Justice of Toren is seeking revenge, and the other part is set in the present to explain how she/it takes that revenge. The story was often hard to follow, and I was definitely confused several times, enough so that I had to go back and re-read pages just to be sure that I was reading the story correctly and that it did make sense on some level.
And it all comes down to the pacing, which is the real enemy here. With all the split narratives and what not, the pacing really suffers. The novel doesn’t really get going until the final third, which is when the dominoes start falling into place. It took that long for the novel to begin to grab me. I usually give up on a novel long before that point if it is not working for me, but I don’t like to start off my year with books that I’ve dropped off like this, so I kept going. Where the first 65% of the novel is all setup and it proceeds at a snail’s pace, the final 35% moves too fast as things begin to fall into place and the tension ramps up for the explosive climax.
In all this though, I never once felt like I was able to connect to the character at all. She/it was too cold and too impersonal for me. Even in the scenes where she/it acts emotionally, I didn’t understand why and the character herself/itself comments on that. There is a deep ethical conundrum going on here, and I know and understand what Ann Leckie was trying to do, but it just didn’t work. The execution was totally off.
And I couldn’t help feeling that the story was extended beyond what it needed to be. Twists happened and they moved the story along, but they didn’t really feel natural. They felt contrived. And essentially, in the first half where Breq saves and then takes into her safekeeping a former officer that she knew (Seivarden Vendaai), it was all contrived. It all existed just to make Breq out as a human being when she/it is nothing of the kind. I’m not sure. Could there have been a deeper relationship there? Probably, but the haphazard way in which the narrative moves, it doesn’t make sense. And this goes back to the above point about the ethical conundrum. Ann Leckie is doing a soul-search here that is reflective of how things were with Data and Lore and Andromeda and other androids in fiction, but the execution fell flat.
The only character that I did like was Lieutenant Awn, one of the first characters that we meet. She is essentially one of the senior officers of the Justice of Toren and much of what Breq does, or what the Toren ancillaries do in this novel, is related to her. She was a fascinating character, inhabiting a small slice of the moral gray that is quite… inimical to the Imperial Radch and its ruler, the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai (this is where the gender confusion comes in as well, since while Mianaai is often referred to as a “Lord”, she is often referred to with female pronouns).
As for the world-building, she does get points there. The universe that she creates is a very interesting place, with all its different complexities, and with the outlook into different cultures, whether alien or otherwise. But also, the novel spends a little too much time on the setting, and not enough on the development of the characters. Which is a shame, since if the characters had been developed better, this really would have been a fantastic novel.
And the story ends before if begins. Or that is how the ending felt to me. All this time and space is spent on getting to the final outcome, and the resolution did not feel like a closure. It felt more like an interlude than an ending, which was just downright weird. So overall, the novel just didn’t work for me, and I wouldn’t recommend it either.