Thursday, 1 January 2015

Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My attention was drawn to this book by the many awards it won, and by hearing the author interviewed on several of the podcasts I follow. Once the price hit a reasonable level, I picked it up to see what the fuss was about.

I'm more of a fantasy reader than an SF reader, and "prisoners of war turned into brainwiped meatpuppets for AI warships" is a bit darker than I usually like to go, so for the first while I wasn't completely loving it. Even while I wasn't loving it, though, I was admiring how well done it was.

Firstly, the concept. A first-person narrative that at the same time has multiple points of view? Clever. Making that not only work, but be an essential part of the story, so you couldn't tell the same story without it? Very clever.

Then there's the worldbuilding. Multi-thousand-year empire, immortal ruler with multiple cloned bodies, the religion, the language... Everyone who talks about this book, I think, mentions the language, which reflects a culture in which gender distinctions are treated as unimportant, and represents this by calling everyone "she". This gives an unusual experience of reading, and acts as a bit of a Rorschach test for the reader. For myself, I ended up keeping the question of most characters' gender open and not really picturing them as one or the other, with a few exceptions. For some reason, I decided that Lieutenant Awn was male, and so was the captain of the Mercy that Breq meets on the station. I don't have specific reasons for this, they just somehow seem male to me.

There are some other thought-provoking themes, too (apart from the thought provoked by the gender question). The idea that people living comfortable lives are usually doing so because other people aren't. The idea of resisting unjust authority when it matters (but you can't know when it will matter). The idea of the system being rigged to favour the "right" people, whoever that happens to be at the time. Really good science fiction isn't afraid to raise disturbing thoughts like these.

The other thing which deeply impressed me was the flawlessness of the prose. I used to be an editor, and the proofreading switch in my brain is stuck in the "on" position. I typically find at least five (and sometimes as many as a hundred) errors in a published book, even one from a major publisher. I mark them in my Kindle as I see them. In this book, I didn't mark a single issue. Not one.

So, that's how well done it was. Did I end up enjoying it too? Yes, I did. As the book progressed, as the author gradually revealed the reasons why Breq was doing what she was doing, I came to care about her success. I was won over to the justice of her cause, hopeless as that cause seemed. Although she never became emotionally warm, Breq did act in ways that made her an admirable person - saving her old lieutenant, for example, not just once but several times. In short, I found myself drawn in, and that, too, is a mark of skill in an author.

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