Often 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 in her debut novel Ancillary Justice – which isn’t strange for her narrator – and not only is this successful, but it’s downright captivating, even as we struggle for purchase.
In 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, 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.
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.
But then, Breq is not what she seems. Breq isn’t her real name, and she is not from the Gerentate; she’s not even human, not anymore. But she is on a mission that was initiated by treachery, spanning decades 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.
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. And the first of a series that gets better and better.
You should read it.
~ Sharon Browning