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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

A review by Nalini Haynes

Ancillary Justice is a pun. The Justice of Toren is a spaceship in the vein of Anne McCaffrey’s sentient ships although Leckie’s ships have hundreds of ‘ancillaries’. Ancillaries are human bodies whose consciousness has been replaced by the sentient ship’s consciousness. Breq used to be Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, the 19th ancillary in the One Esk cadre. Now Breq wants justice – or revenge.

Events leading to Breq, an outsider, arriving in a snow-covered town to find Seivarden unconscious, slowly unfold beside current developments. Breq is the first person point of view character; as a not-entirely-human character, Breq convincingly conveys a sense of other-ness.

Breq discovers Seivarden unconscious in the snow although Seivarden should have been dead a thousand years ago. As a brand-new lieutenant one thousand years earlier, Seivarden, stressed by a prisoner crying, asked the Justice of Toren to quiet the prisoner. Apparently it was unusual for prisoners’ distress to stress human crew, especially newbie crewmembers. (WTF?) The Justice of Toren (now embodied by Breq) disliked Seivarden from that time onward, relishing opportunities for passive-aggressive revenge until Seivarden transferred to another ship.

Unable to leave Seivarden to certain death in the snow, Breq sacrifices much-needed resources to save her. Seivarden embodies the disenfranchised who turn to drug addiction as self-medication, masking instead of processing grief. After her rescue, Seivarden clings to Breq for salvation. The tense ambivalence of their relationship creates richness in the narrative.

Without revealing spoilers, the conclusion is open-ended: what appears to be a fait au compli materialises, characters move into almost pre-ordained roles. The end felt more like a beginning as if Ancillary Justice is a prequel novel rather than a debut novel. If this is the beginning of a trilogy or series, I want more of the loose ends developed, ‘kay thanks.

Breq comes from a race that does not acknowledge gender in the language. Breq experiences difficulty when conversing in other languages where she’s required to guess at gender for pronouns. When Breq finally returns to her people, she justifies her confusion with descriptions of ambiguous gender-signifiers displayed by random strangers in the crowd on the space station. Removing a focus on gender also removes a focus on traditional versus LGBT relationships because who knows? And, more importantly, who cares?

Detracting from this theme, Breq usually refers to people in the feminine even after identifying someone as male. For example, Seivarden is categorically identified as male but is consistently referred to as ‘she’ and even as the ‘daughter’ of a house. I found a masculine Seivarden slipped into a generic female form as a result, which was particularly annoying when HE was whinging and being bitchy.

In Star Trek: The New Frontier, Peter David (author) introduced a hermat Burgoyne, a crew-member simultaneously with both genders . David’s method of handling this was to consistently use gender-generic pronouns when referring to that character. I far prefer David’s method of gender-neutral identification. In contrast, Leckie’s use of the feminine appears to be intentional subversion of the traditional use of the masculine gender whenever gender is not identified. If you can call beating your readers over the head a subversion.

Ancillary Justice gives more than a nod to the Anne McCaffrey books of old while addressing current issues – gender identification and political ambiguity – in an enjoyable space opera.

Three and a half stars.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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