Synopsis: Breq used to be a starship. She was the AI for the ship Justice of Toren, able to directly command hundreds of bodies, known as ancillaries. Now, this former spaceship has lost almost everything. Reduced to one body (the former One Esk Nineteen), Breq has her mind set on one objective–finding a weapon that will allow her to kill one body of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who she believes is responsible for her current condition.
Ancillary Justice is interwoven with scenes from the past. We learn the heart-breaking tale of what happened to Justice of Toren during a planet annexation that goes horribly wrong. Specifically, we get to better understand the singing One Esk Nineteen, who served and cared deeply for Lieutenant Awn.
Ancillary Sword picks up a week after the end of Ancillary Justice. We are no longer jumping back and forth in time, having learned the secrets that lead to Breq’s reduction to one body. Breq is made Fleet Captain of the ship Mercy of Kalr, whose former captain trained the crew to act as ancillaries. Breq is joined by Seivarden and the “baby lieutenant” Tisarwat, and sent to guard Athoek Station, a far-reaching system known mainly for cultivating tea. Of more importance to Breq, Athoek is the home of her beloved Lieutenant Awn’s younger sister. Once there, Breq immediately begins investigating several outside threats as well and a few internal inconsistencies that point to something not quite right at Athoek Station.
Several things make Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword unique. First, the book is written from the point-of-view of a former starship AI that used to control thousands of bodies. The point-of-view is unusual and strange, as readers sometime get glimpses of multiple events happening simultaneously. Second, Breq’s language does not have any concept of gender, so Breq struggles to identify who is masculine and feminine. She uses ‘she’ by default, as well as feminine words such as daughter and sister to represent child and sibling. In many cases, the reader never learns the sex of a character (most character do not seem to have a preferred gender, either). These two qualities make both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword a very unique reading experience.
Review: I’m glad I read Ancillary Justice before I knew that there was a lot of hype surrounding this book. Ancillary Justice has (deservedly) won multiple awards. Around the Internet, people are also raving about the books (The Book Smugglers, Tor, NPR, io9). When I read it for class this summer, however, the response in class was not positive at all. Because of this, for awhile Ancillary Justice felt like my own little secret–an awesome sci-fi book that only I knew about or appreciated.
That’s ridiculous of course. We’ve since seen Ancillary Justice win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke, so apparently I’m not the only one that loves these books after all. They don’t need my loving protection.
Because of the unusual perspective of Breq (spaceship AI in a culture that doesn’t differentiate genders), reading Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword can be a bit disorienting, but in the best way possible. If you’re someone who needs to be able to visualize characters, these books might be frustrating. In most cases, you’ll never figure out the biological sex or the gender of the characters. Reading the book really challenges you to think about how you think about gender. (Side note: as another win for the book, a majority of characters, if not all, are people of color.) Also, Leckie has some spectacular pieces of writing, particularly during flashbacks, where she tries to capture what it might be like to be one consciousness experiencing multiple situations through multiple bodies. It’s absolutely stunning.
Aside from the two defining features of these books, the stories themselves were very interesting. In fact, I’m writing this review right now instead of working on schoolwork because I could not stop thinking about Ancillary Sword. The books move at a slightly slower pace than most sci-fi and are rich in detail, but tackle a lot of interesting issues: identity, colonialism, culture and language, systemic inequality, etc. I especially love the explorations of whether a starship AI can care about and form attachments to the people on the ship as well as the nuances of what happens to an ancillary’s personality when they are made into an ancillary.
Breq is a unique narrator. She comes off very distant and unemotional, even cold (due to the fact that she is an AI). Breq experiences everything in a strange dichotomy–very closely (Breq can often read the emotions people are feeling as the Justice of Toren or by linking in with Mercy of Kalr) accompanied by a strange emotional distance due to the fact that Breq does not understand everything the way you or I would.
What really drew me in, besides the unique narration, were various relationships between characters: particularly One Esk Nineteen and Lieutenant Awn, Breq and Seivarden (particularly in Sword–Seivarden annoyed me a bit in Justice), and Breq and Tisarwat. I also loved the small details that enriched the characters and the world they inhabit. One example is the singing. Breq has a habit of collecting songs and constantly singing or humming to herself without knowing. She acts this way even as an ancillary that is part of a ship, which individualizes her (and also raises questions about how the former identities of people influence the ancillaries they become). Once in command of the Mercy of Kalr, some of Breq’s crew pick up the habit and start singing as well.
Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword (named after the ships, by the way–Justice of Toren and Sword of Atagaris) are definitely worth a read if you enjoy sci-fi. Sadly, Ancillary Sword was just published, which means I’ll have to wait ages for the final book in the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy!
5 stars for both.