It’s a brilliant way to keep the reader slightly off kilter right from the start, reminding us that we are reading a science fiction novel without resorting to tentacled aliens or phasers set to stun. In Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, a lack of confidence on the part of the narrator on how to discern the proper gendered pronoun to use in most situations leads to an internal dialog that defaults to the feminine. Not knowing the true gender of a human character is disconcerting, but it’s fascinating to realize the impact of assuming the feminine, especially in situations where traditionally there is – at least in our world so far – a proportionally higher male population (military, politics), which reinforces the other-worldliness of the environment without an over-the-top obviousness.
These are not characters acting against type – this is a situation where the type is not definitively addressed due to disparate languages issues, and the ambiguity is very effective.
Add to that a weird, assumed viewpoint – viewpoints – that is/are not comfortable until well into the story, and it’s pretty obvious that we are nowhere near Kansas. So often, even in science fiction, authors start with the familiar and then deviate from it, often abruptly, to draw their audience in. Ann Leckie, instead, puts us right in the middle of the strangeness – which isn’t strange for her narrator – and not only is this successful, but it’s downright captivating, even as we struggle for purchase.
Meet Breq of the Gerentate, who is on a clandestine mission, a personal one; one that has been decades in the making. It has nothing to do with the naked, broken body that she finds discarded in the snow outside a tavern on the rustic planet Nilt, but there is something familiar about this barely alive person. A former officer of Breq’s (or at least that which Breq once was), later to become a commander, well bred, from a good family. Why Seivarden Vendaai is on this planet, in this condition (one that turns out is more caused by substance abuse than ulterior motivations) is unknown, and unnecessary to determine, for Breq.
I rose and went into the tavern. The place was dark, the white of the ice walls long since covered over with grime or worse. The air smelled of alcohol and vomit. A barkeep stood behind a bench. She was a native – short and fat, pale and wide-eyed. Three patrons sprawled in seats at a dirty table. Despite the cold they wore only trousers and quilted shirts – it was spring in this hemisphere of Nilt and they were enjoying the warm spell. They pretended not to see me, though they had certainly noticed me in the street and knew what motivated my entrance. Likely one or more of them had been involved; Seivarden hadn’t been out there long or she’d have been dead.
‘I’ll rent a sledge,’ I said, ‘and buy a hypothermia kit.’
But then, Breq is not what she seems. Breq is not her real name, and she is not from the Gerentate. She is not even human, not anymore. But she is on a mission that was initiated by treachery, spanning decades and bolstered by centuries, and rooted in vengeance. It will take her across star systems, through layers of social strata, and behind the scenes of the most powerful force in this unknown universe. She is patient. She is focused. She is alone.
That is, until she finds Seivarden Vendaai face down in the snow. Seivarden Vendaai has nothing to do with Breq’s mission, but does with her past. This complicates her progress but will not impede it. It also opens up a world – a universe – to us that is rich and storied and deep, very layered and smoothly complex.
‘I know that song,’ she said, her face still resting on her wrists. I realized it was very likely the only way she would recognize me, and changed to a different tune. In one region of Valskaay, singing was a refined pastime, local choral associations the center of social activity. That annexation had brought me a great deal of the sort of music I had liked best, when I had more than one voice. I chose one of those. Seivarden wouldn’t know it. Valskaay had been both before and after her time.
Ancillary Justice is not a slap-happy, action packed adventure (although there is action here, and adventure) nor is it a cerebral, contemplative morality play in space (although there is contemplation and plenty to ponder, and huge questions regarding morality). The main character is reserved, not very emotive, at times impassive, and yet not devoid of feelings – even deep ones – nor dismissive of the feelings of those around her. She is not mindless, yet she is treated as, and embraces, being just another piece of equipment. She is both more than and less than the role that she has assigned to herself. All these dichotomies keep the narrative intriguing even as the action at times seems to be very introspective and slow. The musculature of this story is definitely isometric – except for those moments when everything erupts. Fascinating.
Shortlisted for a BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Best Novel award, a finalist for the Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award (debut author) and for the Philip K. Dick Award (distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form), and nominated by readers for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Science Fiction, the accolades for this unique and layered work will no doubt continue to roll in. There’s a reason for Ancillary Justice being named to all these lists – it’s an exceptional work.
You should read it. You really should.