Desert Isle Keeper
The Imperial Radch series
Ancillary Justice, the first in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. That’s a heck of a showing for a debut book. That she followed it with two more equally stunning and satisfying books makes me wonder who she sold her soul to, and whether or not they’d be interested in mine. I can’t say it enough: this series is amazing. Read this series.
In Ancillary Justice, the first book of the series, the narrator Breq is on an icy planet hunting for something unknown. Flashbacks show One Esk Nineteen, a human body permanently converted into an ancillary puppet body run by the warship AI Justice of Toren, witnesses an atrocity committed by the leader of the Radch empire. And that’s all the detail I want to give you, because a great deal of the fun of that first book is watching the plot and the setting unfold. In fact, I’m giving you less information than the book jacket or the Amazon summary, so beware of those if you go shopping for this book. It’s better to just dive in.
The second two books depart from the first one. Where Ancillary Justice moved forward as a combined mystery-action adventure (Who is Breq? Where is Justice of Toren in the present?), Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy are linear, as Breq is granted authority over a planetary system and struggles to create a just, secure place there. The trilogy is sci-fi in the “hard,” “space-opera” sense: technology is front and center, and the parties are maneuvering militarily, politically, diplomatically, and via subterfuge for control of multiple planet systems. But it’s also very heady. Questions of ethics, identity, and what it means to “be” someone or something permeate the books.
In addition to the plots, which are meticulously crafted and come together impeccably, the writing is fascinating. The author manages to transport you into the minds (mind?) of One Esk Nineteen and Justice of Toren, a warship with multiple physical instances. Is One Esk Nineteen, Justice of Toren’s mind in a different body, going to be exactly the same and in accord with both Justice of Toren and the other nineteen One Esks? And the dozens of Justice of Torens in other ancillary divisions? What are the consequences if she isn’t?
I use “she” judiciously, because I actually don’t know what Breq’s gender is. The Radchaai language, spoken by Justice of Toren, One Esk Nineteen, and Breq, has no genders. Rather than default to “he” or “it,” as we’ve done for much of the history of the English language, the author has the first-person narrator use “she” when speaking Radchaai. I was fascinated by my reaction to this. At first, I tried to figure out what gender each character was by cross-referencing pronouns used when the speakers spoke other languages. It took me half the first book to figure that gender ought not to matter. That was about when I realized that if the pronouns had all been “he,” I would probably not have noticed anything at all, because I’m so used to all-male sci-fi stories. Oh, and the Radchaai are all dark-skinned, another exception in sci-fi. This has been optioned for a movie, and wow, will it be interesting to see what they do with it.
The author creates authentically different thinking for AIs and aliens. An alien species called the Presger is so different from humans that they can’t even interact with them, and have engineered an intermediary species called the Translators to do so. But Translators still can’t function like humans – not if they also have to talk to the Presger – leading to conversations in which Breq and a Translator debate precisely who the Translator is. The Translator is relieved to settle on Breq’s candidate for her identity, since the Translator doesn’t like being the entity she thought she was. These glimpses into a completely alien way of being make for a much richer setting than ones where aliens are basically human except furry, or insectoid, or blue.
There is no romance in this book, and usually I find that authors shortchange the emotional and personal lives of sci-fi characters who aren’t intended to fall in love. Not so here. You’re spoiled for choice in well-developed, complicated characters from both human and AI backgrounds. I’m someone who has to like people in my books, and I found plenty of people (entities?) to root for. I liked watching Breq push for justice and reform, and I liked that, in the midst of empire-wide change, the author kept the story tight and Breq’s ability to implement change realistically limited.
If you are a sci-fi fan who hasn’t read this series yet, go get it right now. Actually, go get this right now even if you’re not a sci-fi fan. I can’t recommend it highly enough.