Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Werthead

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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie



Breq is an ancillary, an animated corpse possessed by the controlling intelligence of a vast starship, the Justice of Toren. The Justice was destroyed more than twenty years ago, with Breq as the sole survivor and the only person to hold a secret that could tear the interstellar empire known as the Radch apart. Breq, now driven by grief and vengeance, goes in search of the only weapon that can accomplish her goal.


Ancillary Justice is the debut novel by American author Ann Leckie, who has already established herself as a writer of short stories. It's an interesting SF novel which riffs on a whole load of ideas. The most striking is the one of identity. Breq is a tiny, splintered part of a much vaster, destroyed intelligence and has difficulties in relating to other people and the world around her. She's also effectively possessing a dead body and suffers from a cultural bias. The Radchaai do not believe in gender differentiation and go to some lengths to keep their gender unclear. The culture defaults to describing everyone in the feminine, resulting in odd moments when a character you've spent a dozen pages mentally picturing as female actually turns out to be male. This playing around with gender roles is not new - Ursula Le Guin did it rather more literally in The Left Hand of Darkness more than forty years ago - but it's something that relatively few SF authors have dealt with before and forces the reader to confront their own biases.

Those looking for in-depth worldbuilding and explanations for this SF universe will be left disappointed. There's little information on the amazingly powerful armour that protects the Radchaai, nor much on how their ships work. FTL travel gets relatively short shrift, and the only hint as to the fate of Earth is a single line about how it's a remote backwater. There is a slight inconsistency in that the Radch's tech level, though impressive, appears to be reasonably believable until someone casually throws it out there that they've also built a Dyson sphere, which seems beyond their capabilities. I daresay that the inevitable future books in the series (yes, there will be at least two more) will reveal more, but in this volume the author is focusing more on the immediate story at hand.

Structurally the book adopts a tried-and-tested technique of alternating between flashback chapters showing what happened to the Justice of Toren and why (and doing a good job of showing how massive events can unfold from the tiniest of causes), and events in the present day. Characterisation is reasonably strong, with Leckie showing how citizens of the Radch differ from one another whilst retaining the same cultural and religious traits. Breq herself is well-drawn, as the ship AIs in Leckie's setting are perfectly capable of having emotions and development (and indeed, Breq's actions are catalysed by what happens to one of her favourite crewmembers).

Whilst a lot of reviews are drawing comparisons with Le Guin, I was also reminded of the works of Iain Banks, particularly in the idea of living ships with their own goals and motivations and how they work when placed in humanoid bodies. What Leckie shares with both authors is more of a fascination with the social sciences than the hard ones, and also a belief in storytelling that also challenges the reader.

Ancillary Justice (****) is one of the most striking SF debuts of recent years. It's not perfect - the restrained prose sometimes risks stodginess and the opening chapters risk an almost Eriksonian level of confusion due to a lack of context for what the hell is going on (though this is still well-handled) - but ultimately the novel evolves into an intelligent take on gender roles and identity issues against a fascinating (if only hinted-at) SF backdrop. More please.
 

Moggle

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That last paragraph pretty much sums up this book. I usually give a novel about 25 pages to capture my interest, and if they can't do it within that time the story is a failure, imo. I know that it won't get any better the further I read. Needless to say, Leckie and Ancillary Justice did not pass my test. I read the first 50 pages and came away confused and simply bored, and I refuse to read any more. This book is DOA.
 

Siberian

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I loved this book. True, the beginning was somewhat confusing (mirroring the confusion in Breq's mind) but it was still intriguing enough to keep me going. I like to puzzle things out for myself. It also strongly reminded me of Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness - another classic I loved.
 

Bick

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A brief review of this novel. I wrote this review and then noticed there was a review thread on Chrons, so I'll add it here:

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This is the first novel by american author Ann Leckie, and it has so far won the Nebula Award, the BSFA Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Locus Award. It’s nominated for the Hugo as well, though the 2014 winner of that is not yet announced. Clearly it comes highly recommended. I don’t read very many newly released novels, as I like to see how they are viewed after a few years (well, decades) to be sure they stand the test of time. I figured I’d make an exception in this case, and I’m glad I did.

I’ve read other reviews that suggest the novel starts slowly yet builds in a satisfying way to a good conclusion. In fact, I disagree with this appraisal of the start: it actually begins in quite a sprightly way, and it makes for quite compulsive reading. The reason it’s reviewed as a slow starter is probably because you have to keep at it (and maintain your concentration) to work out what’s going on. There is no spoon-feeding of plot here, and the rules of Leckie’s SF universe are probably distinct from those of any other I’ve read. I was reminded of early Iain Banks’ SF – when I first read about ship Minds and the Culture, it was as though Banks had invented something wholly new, not just in ideas, but in voice and scope. I felt the same with Leckie’s novel. The primary SF idea presented here is that ships not only have an AI mind, but also multiple human bodies that they can control, obtained from past prisoners of war (the original bodies’ owners are ‘dead’). These are known as the ships’ ancillaries of the title. The ancillaries can act independently of the main AI and they have a degree of individualism, though they are ultimately controlled and regulated by the ship as a tight network of interconnected conscious segments of the whole. It’s a neat idea and allows Leckie to address ideas of what makes for individualism and self.

Two other ideas enrich the story: Firstly, in the empire where the novel is set, gender is no longer even considered or acknowledged in speech. All characters are referred to as ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘daughter’, regardless of sex. This makes for some difficulty in working out if characters are male or female, and it slightly irritated me, until I realised that it didn’t actually matter, and I stopped trying. I ended up really enjoying this device. The second complexity comes from a plot point: the emperor, in addition to ship AIs, inhabits multiple (thousands) of interconnected human bodies, and by doing so, is practically immortal. This makes for a great plot device.

It is hard to say too much about the plot without providing annoying spoilers. I will limit comments on the plot to those mentioned on the cover blurb: the protagonist is the single remnant segment body of an old warship that was otherwise destroyed. This ‘ancillary’ is after the titular ‘justice’ of the novel… how she/he/it goes about that I’ll leave future readers to discover.

Overall, I found this to be a very satisfying read. It’s got several big ideas, and while it is described as space opera (no doubt due to its large geographic scope), it’s not really in that sub-genre, given it is ideas driven and thought-provoking. A worthy winner of the Nebula, I wouldn’t be at surprised if it picks up the Hugo gong as well. I understand a sequel is coming (“Ancillary Sword”, Oct 2014), but this book stands alone well, so readers shouldn’t feel they are committing themselves to an ongoing series if they pick up this novel. That said, I will doubtless be reading more Leckie in future.
 

Anthony G Williams

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This is my review from my SFF blog: Science Fiction & Fantasy

This new novel has received rave reviews and awards (Arthur C Clarke and Nebula Awards so far), so was selected as one of the monthly reads by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. This is a story in which the circumstances are only gradually revealed, some of the major revelations occurring late in the book. So if you prefer to discover everything as the author drip-feeds it, it's best to avoid reviews like this one. Suffice it to say that after a slow first half, the story gathers pace and turns out to be an original and intriguing tale.

To explain the context some spoilers are necessary but I'll avoid any major ones.

Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in which humanity has spread over a large volume of the galaxy, living uneasily alongside a powerful alien empire, the Presger. The human zone is ruled by the Radchaai in general and the immortal Anaander Mianaai in particular, relying on a fleet of powerful starships inextricably linked to their Artificial Intelligences and given names accordingly (in this respect, reminiscent of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels). Each ship carries a force of soldiers, mainly ancillaries: captives who have been given various enhancements to turn them into super-soldiers but have had their personalities wiped, being replaced with advanced fighting skills and an absolute obedience to the Radchaai. They are mentally linked to each other and to their ship, and are considered to be no longer human.

The story is told in the first person by Breq, whom we soon learn is an ancillary from the One Esk fighting unit of the starship Justice of Toren. Uniquely, she has been separated from her ship for nineteen years. Now on a remote, frozen planet, she rescues from death a drug addict called Seivarden, a Radchaai former starship captain who had escaped the destruction of his ship in a survival pod and had been recently found – a thousand years later (echoes of Campbell's Lost Fleet here, but Seivarden is no hero). Breq is on a mission, but exactly what and why we only discover later in the story.

Reading this book requires some concentration since there are two aspects liable to cause confusion. One is that the story frequently hops between events in the present and the past. The other is the question of gender. The Radchaai language does not distinguish between male and female, and Breq refers to everyone as "she" regardless, including Seivarden (although we know from the start that he is male). In fact, we only know that Breq is female from a remark made by a non-Radchaai at the start of the book. Working out the gender of other characters requires a degree of guesswork, since Breq frequently can't tell herself.

I am not sure whether this gender-blindness is just a gimmick, or if the author has a serious point to make. It does deflect attention away from all of the usual gender prejudices and male/female interaction issues that fill most novels, but on the other hand Jack Campbell – to give one example – achieves that quite effectively in his Lost Fleet series (the first one, anyway; all I've read so far) without concealing the gender of the characters.

The ending is satisfying in that it brings Breq's mission to a conclusion while still leaving plenty of scope for sequels, and in fact we learn in an interview attached to the end of the novel that the author is planning a trilogy. I wasn't at first sure that I was going to like this story, as the pace is slower than I prefer and the gender ambiguity is confusing and somewhat irritating. However, the writing quality is very good – I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin – and I was intrigued from the start, so I persevered. My involvement in the story and the characters gradually increased to the point at which I didn't want to put the book down, so I will certainly be looking out for the next volume.
 

Brian G Turner

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I just tried reading more of the sample of Amazon - apparently, the POV character can figure out nuances about money and politeness of speech, as well as gender is (such as the wounded officer) - but still refuses to acknowledge gender identity.

As the whole issue of gender is mentioned repeatedly on the first couple of pages, my cynicism is beginning to kick in that this is not really a science fiction story, but merely a thinly-disguised platform to discuss gender politics - by manipulating the English language in such an artificial manner that anything except gender will be acknowledged.

And if the POV character claims a background where gender isn't recognised, then why do they insist on using the feminine gender pronoun for everyone, rather than a non-gender term that would perhaps make more logical sense?

I looked because I wanted to find a good story to read, but I fear this is going to be more a socio-political agenda.

Am I being far too cynical? (I know it's a common failing of mine! :D )
 

Bick

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Am I being far too cynical?
I think so. There's a lot more to it than the gender thing, which I might usually expect to put me off. There's a good deal of plot, and if you've been only dipping into the free bit from Amazon you won't have read much of it. I'm not saying its for everyone, but I don't see the reference to people with a female pronoun as a necessarily defining element.
 

cyberpunkdreams

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I'd give it the thumbs up (especially given that I've just ordered its sequel!) The main thing for me was how different it felt; as if it was written by someone with no previous exposure to SF (I have no idea whether or not this is true). Well written certainly, interesting ideas, and although it started slowly the plot was definitely compelling.
 

Dinosaur

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I gave up quite early on after the whole "my culture is superior because we have moved beyond gender but I will still call everyone she despite despite recognizing the difference between genders" thing.

Far too much like one of those websites where your not sure if they are taking the poss.
 

Brian G Turner

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I'm not saying its for everyone, but I don't see the reference to people with a female pronoun as a necessarily defining element.
The opening pages make it plain to me that the novel is looking to make a big statement on gender issues - it's a repeated theme in the opening chapter.

I really don't mind books with a political message - Heinlein comes immediately to mind, not least Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, both of which IMO explore different parts of the political spectrum. Socio-political themes can be very thought provoking.

However, there's been so much apparent politicisation in SFF awards recently that I can't tell if Leckie's nominations are a part of that, or because she's writing astonishing science fiction.

But is it really superior? That's the question and the direction in which the book goes.
Now that does sound a much more interesting proposition. :)
 

cyberpunkdreams

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It's kind of odd that by trying to make gender a non-thing, the author has actually emphasised it to quite a degree. To be fair, it is a bit heavy handed in the first novel. In the second it's barely mentioned, apart from using the same pronoun for everyone.
 

psikeyhackr

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I have just finished listening to the audio book. In most ways it reminds me of a Culture story by Iain Banks. I have tried 4 of his books and finished two. I do not think I could have read AJ. I could tolerate listening to the first 2/3rds . It took that long to get interesting. I wanted to finish it since Leckie is getting so much positive PR but I don't think I will try any more of her books, just as I won't try any more by Banks.

psik
 

Werthead

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Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Breq, once a superintelligent AI controlling a vast starship, is now a reluctant agent of Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radch. Mianaai inhabits thousands of different bodies scattered across human space, but is now suffering from disassociation: two distinct factions have arisen in her multiplicity and are now waging war on one another. Aligned with one faction against the other, Breq is ordered to the remote planet Athoek and take steps to secure it against the opposition.

Ancillary Justice was released in 2013 and won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards the following year. A fine space opera novel which contained thematic musings on identity, consciousness and pre-existing biases, it was a striking debut, if one that was slightly overrated.

Being a success, of course the novel turned out to be the start of a trilogy. This is where things start to go wrong for Ancillary Sword. The Imperial Radch trilogy is what can be called a "fake trilogy", where Part 1 is self-contained (to some extent) to avoid too many unresolved plotlines if sales tank, whilst the remaining two parts form a much more closely-linked duology. The original Star Wars trilogy is a good example of that, and it's a reasonably common set-up in science fiction and fantasy which can work quite well (and arguably is better than "proper" trilogies with a single big story, where often the middle book feels surplus to requirements). However, it doesn't really work with Ancillary Sword.

This is a book which has very bizarre pacing. The entire novel, which is only 340 pages long in paperback, is laid back, chilled out, almost languorous. Breq travels on her starship to Athoek and meets lots of people and is nice to them, whilst carrying out observations of them from her unique perspective (a starship AI living in a single human body). The other characters are a mixture of interesting and bland, but the novel stubbornly refuses to engage in anything really approaching a plot or giving them anything interesting to do. A representative of an overwhelmingly powerful alien race is murdered, but this has no consequence (in this novel anyway). There's a lot of politicking and capital-building, both by Breq and her subordinates, and some of this is addressed in the novel but a lot of it isn't. At one point we learn of a mysterious "ghost gate" leading to an unknown star system where Breq suspects something is going on. She resolutely fails to follow up on this lead.

Ancillary Sword, it soon turns out, is almost nothing but set-up and pipe-laying for Ancillary Mercy, the third and concluding volume in the series. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is an issue when the book denudes itself of its own identity and storyline to benefit the later book in the series.

What the book does do quite well is character development, with Leckie also cleverly inverting the usual cliches of "AI wanting to be human" stories by having an AI become human and resolutely dislike the experience. By the end of the book Breq knows where she stands with regards to the government of Athoek and the administrators of the space station above it. The novel also makes some nods in the direction of themes such as colonialism, but treats the subject simplistically and superficially: no-one on Athoek but Breq has ever had the idea of treating the labourers fairly or even just enforcing the law on treating subject races well, apparently.

This is a slow-burning, SF-lite novel which feels like it is trying very hard to be a Lois McMaster Bujold book (who does this kind of comedy-of-manners, character-rooted story which holds back on violence and explosions with considerably less hype) but is undercut by also lacking the story and thematic elements that Bujold would include in her work effortlessly. If Ancillary Sword is anything, it's certainly not effortless: this is a turgidly-paced novel that took me five weeks to get through despite its modest length.

Still, Ancillary Mercy (**½) is a desperately slow and badly-paced novel rescued by some effective characterisation and ends with some plot developments that leave things in an intriguing place for Ancillary Mercy to resolve. How well it does so remains to be seen. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 

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I thought that this trilogy was excellent. The first book was the best. Yes, one had to work at it a bit, but that is not necessarily a problem.
 

Stewart Hotston

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I thought ancillary justice was excellent and am surprised how much people think it's about gender! It's as if because people are called she all the time rather than he or even a mix of both, that this is somehow a grand feminist agenda. I don't see it. I see a context in which it makes sense (and why the hell would an ancillary care about gender exactly? Because it knows there's a difference? What a strange idea).

I thought the second and third were much less edgy - being much more in the mould of normative science fiction space opera but they were still very interesting - bringing well understood tropes out to question them (although fairly gently it has to be said). As for the presgr. They're an effective and interesting alien race as well.

As for books being overtly political. I'm sorry, but if you don't see the political statements in a text that generally means it's because you agree with the basic premises of the statements being made - it's the well known effect of being blind to your own assumptions. This is most often witnessed by people in the mainstream saying 'well I didn't experience it so it can't be a problem.' The comment that AJ is overtly political is really saying 'this is espousing a politics that I wouldn't express myself and that puts me off' which is a fair statement to make both because it's reasonable but also because it's honest. Far more honest than denying that other books we read don't express a form of politics just as overtly.

For instance - the politics of Joe Abercrombie's books are pretty explicitly patriarchal and hierarchical despotism like that of trump, putin and any other 'might makes right' strong man - what amazes me is that people think it's so cool a world. It makes for an interesting conceptual framework but it's a pretty explicit political statement about how people behave in those contexts (and the necessary subjugation of women that occurs in most of those stories - even the supernaturally powerful females are shown their place, manipulated and defeated roundly because they simply can't compete). And no, I'm not judging it, nor commenting on whether Abercrombie suggests it's a 'bad' thing.

Now, I'm not trying to have a go at anyone, although this does come across as a rant - but I'm just a little surprised that I'm even feeling like I need to write the statement that all texts are political...
 

Werthead

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Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Breq, the former starship AI-turned-military-officer, has secured the Atheok system and plans to wait out the civil war raging between the fragmented selves of Anaander Mianaai whilst investigating the ongoing mysterious events in the neighbouring Ghost system. But events will not wait for Breq and she soon discovers that the fates of everyone in the Atheok system may depend on what she does next.

Ancillary Justice was a refreshing, smart and interesting science fiction novel. Its sequel, Ancillary Sword, was a major letdown, a work that sprawled and felt at times that the author wasn't sure what direction to take the story. Ancillary Mercy, which concludes the trilogy, ranks somewhere inbetween. This is definitely a more directed, more focused work that rounds off the thematic elements of the trilogy more or less satisfyingly, but on a more prosaic plot level is less impressive.

On the character side of things, Mercy crystallises when Justice did so well and Sword occasionally struggled with: the interrogation of self, identity and self-realisation. Breq is a creation of the Imperial Radch, but she is not Radchaii and can view their culture from both outside and the perspective of one of its servants. The Radchaii believe they are civilised, but they are also intolerant and imperialistic, stamping their identity on the civilisations they encounter. They are baffled by the idea of ethnic and religious differences amongst their more newly-conquered subjects and resort to violence a little too readily. Breq - ironically - is a humanist who abhors violence when it can be avoided and seeks understanding and diplomatic resolutions to crises, which confuses a lot of her supposed "fellow" Radchaii.

This internal cultural examination is successful, but ultimately doesn't expand much beyond what we learned back in the first novel: the Radchaii should chill out and stop killing people, basically. Much more interesting is the examination of the nature of identity and the interrogation of the nature of both Breq and the other AIs. This leads to a bit of an unexpected plot twist that satisfyingly helps tie up the story at the end of the book.

That story, however, is not the story that many readers thought they were reading about: the war between the Anaander Mianaai clones. This doesn't really end or peak in the book, and carries on after the novel ends. On a thematic level this is quite understandable: the war has been going on clandestinely for a thousand years, so it being wrapped up neatly in three books covering a couple of years is unlikely. On a plot level, however, it can't help but feel that Leckie has left plot hooks dangling for future books (and more novels in the Radch setting are forthcoming), which is fine but feels perhaps a little disingenuous for a series marketed firmly as a trilogy.

At the end of the book there's a big climax and a smart and clever ending which makes the trilogy certainly feel worthwhile. It's an interesting, thought-provoking series. But it's also one that feels passive and inert for a lot of its time, with a huge amount of important stuff going on behind the scenes or resolutely off-page. It can make for a series that's hard to love but easier to admire and respect: Leckie is dealing with a lot of ideas here and doing so in a manner that's often quite subtle.

Ancillary Mercy (***½) is a worthwhile, humanist finale to the Imperial Radch trilogy, but it isn't the grand, epic and stirring ending that I think some people were expecting. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Provenance, the next novel in the Imperial Radch setting (but not a direct sequel to this trilogy), will be published on 26 September 2017.
 

psikeyhackr

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I thought ancillary justice was excellent and am surprised how much people think it's about gender! It's as if because people are called she all the time rather than he or even a mix of both, that this is somehow a grand feminist agenda.
I found that mildly annoying for the first quarter of the book but after that is was not especially interesting. I decided not to read the rest of the trilogy. It riminds me of The Culture series by Banks. I tried 4 of those and finished 2. No more.

psik
 

Vertigo

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Having only just read this thread (I really should have read it before!) and having just read this book I'd agree with what many others have said and I say below. At first glance it appears that gender is a major issue in this book, that maybe it has some big political gender points to make. And, to be honest, like @Brian G Turner, this put me off and is largely why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it. But in fact the whole point is that gender is not important either to the society ot to the book!

Anyway my thoughts:

The Radsch have always had a policy of expansion steadily increasing their empire by ‘annexing’ other star systems using much the same sort of strategy as the Ancient Romans; once annexed they are integrated into the Radch Empire becoming citizens with all the numerous benefits that entails and their gods absorbed rather than replaced. But this absorption only happens after an initial brutal suppression in which almost all prisoners are effectively murdered, their living bodies being taken over by sentient ship AIs as ‘ancillaries’; sentient in their own right but only as a part of the ship’s overall sentience and permanently linked to the ship and all its other ancillaries. The original personality completely destroyed or at least totally suppressed. Though that totality is occasionally questioned. But what happens when one ancillary is all that remains of a ship and its AI?

Ancillary Justice is the first in the Imperial Radch trilogy (plus a couple of prequel shorts) and has had a lot of hype (Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards amongst others) and is certainly a pretty impressive debut but I’m afraid I’d dispute it being completely worthy of all of those awards, maybe the Locus Award for Best First Novel but I’m not sure about the rest. Don’t get me wrong, this was a very good book, just, for me, not quite that good.

Since it’s one of the areas that seems to generate the most discussion I’d like to mention the gender issues brought up in the book. Whilst interesting, I once again feel they are not nearly as important as is indicated by all that (and yet here am I discussing it further!). Significantly these gender issues are not really particularly relevant to the story; they are an interesting and plausible bit of world building but no more than that as far as I could see. The idea of a society like the Radchaai, where gender is largely irrelevant is perfectly reasonable. But note that it is not, as some people mistakenly seem to assume, that they are physically gender neutral; they have all the simple and ambiguous genders humans have today, it’s just they’re not socially important. In Leckie’s own words:

“…[the Radchaai] really don't care about anyone's gender, and don't mark it socially or linguistically. So, they're humans, and as such come in all sorts of genders, and they know gender exists, but it's not really a thing they care much about. They care about it, maybe, as much as we care about hair color.”

And thank goodness that Leckie simply chose to always use female pronouns; I found that so much easier to work with than other authors’ use of invented pronouns like ve, ver vim etc. that pull me out of the narrative every time I hit them. In Leckie’s prose the familiar pronouns quickly became invisible (as they should) and the genders of the characters equally rapidly became irrelevant. I have seen some people say they enjoyed trying to figure out the ‘real’ gender of characters from their behaviour, but I feel they’re missing the point; gender is not important to the characters or the story and any indications are no more relevant than, as happens in real life, some men exhibiting some feminine traits and vice versa. The trick is to just read the story and, like the Radchaai, ignore gender issues except when it occasionally becomes significant when dealing with non-Radchaai.

Beyond this interesting and successful bit of world building the book had good plotting with some interesting twists and turns, though the suspense was largely generated by having the book running two timelines; one following the present action and one following the actions that led to the present situation. This was sometimes a little frustrating as it was obvious that past facts were being withheld purely to maintain the suspense in the present timeline. This wasn’t always managed as smoothly as it could have been, though it and the slightly disjointed prose early on did improve as the book and Leckie’s writing settled down. I did find it took me quite a while to settle down into the narration. The characterisation was generally strong and well done with just one key protagonist’s character change over the course the books feeling possibly a little forced.

All in all a very good book, an exceptional debut even, but not quite the standout classic I have seen it painted as.

4/5 stars.
 

Rodders

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Thanks Vertigo, I’ve been meaning to pick this up for some time now,
 
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