The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie made a lot of waves when the books were first released. Ancillary Justice was the first book to win all three of the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clark Awards (along with numerous other awards), and every book in the trilogy won a Locus award along with piles of nominations. They are well deserved for the writing which uses the unique point of view of a thousand-plus year old AI looking for revenge, and for the story which follows the complex political maneuverings throughout a massive space Empire ruled by the many clones of a single leader. At the outset, Ancillary Justice in particular received attention for the way it handled artificial consciousness and gender awareness.
I first read Ancillary Justice about 6 years ago and initially found it challenging. At the time, I was out of practice of reading science fiction, so being plunged into a world with new rules (and no hand-holding from the author*) was confusing. However, after the first 3 chapters or so I was hooked and by the end I was completely blown away. I was very eager to read the next book, but unfortunately it took me until now to do so. While being quarantined at home waiting for the results of a COVID test, I had the pleasure of re-reading the first book and then reading the next two back to back.
Ancillary Justice follows the soldier Breq through 2 timelines, twenty years apart. In the earlier timeline, Breq is the AI of a warship, the Justice of Toren, with hundreds of “ancillaries” – humans who have had their identities erased and replaced with the AI of the ship so that Justice of Toren can see, coordinate, and act in many places at once. As Justice of Toren, Breq witnesses the annexation of a planet into the Radchaai Empire where things do not go smoothly. In the later timeline, Breq is only a single ancillary (formerly the ancillary known by the designation One Esk Nineteen) who looks human, but whose consciousness is all that is left of the ship’s AI.
Breq/One Esk Nineteen is not human, although she practices many Radchaai customs and rituals including adherence to wearing gloves and attention to drinking tea. However, Breq still does not fully understand humans – particularly gender expression. Radchaai has only one pronoun for people, so Breq’s narration exclusively uses “she” to refer to people, regardless of sex. The initial temptation while reading was (for me) to try and discover from context clues whether a character is male or female. However, I quickly realized that was close to impossible with only a few exceptions. Radchaai hair and dress are not the same as ours so physical descriptions are useless. Neither is observing behavior useful; Radchaai relationships come in many configurations and power dynamics related to social status, class, and ethnicity, but the sex of the persons is not one of the relevant factors. Even if a reader attempted to assume rigid gender stereotypes of behavior and somehow try to fit any given character into them, you would quickly be faced with the realization that human behavior is not “male behavior” or “female behavior”, but just that – human. Sometimes in the course of a single chapter my mind’s eye would switch back and forth between a male and a female version of any given character, but about halfway through the book my brain finally snapped out of it and was able to think of each character as androgynous and gender stopped figuring into the equation. It was a beautiful, freeing thing, and not one I usually get to experience in real life, immersed as we usually are by our culture’s expectations for gender. The only time I felt that way in real life was when I was at MBLGTACC three times during my undergrad – suddenly heteronormativity was no longer the water we were all swimming in and people were free to bend or break the concept of gender as much as they wanted. It is something I wish I could experience more often.
Breq may not understand gender expression, but as an AI she sees everything: changes in heartrate, minute gestures or pauses in speech, the physical measurements of any given room she is in. Her narration could be considered cold or overly-fact driven, but the analytical nature still conveys raw emotion – anger, regret, sorrow, elation, envy – in a way that is a perfect fit for the novel. It is not human, yet it is somehow incredibly more personal, and I grew to love the characters very much because of this. Even Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen grows to love the people, because despite having an artificial consciousness Breq’s heart is real. There are humans who don’t think the ships’ AIs are able to develop affection for people and this proves to be a horrible miscalculation that leads to Breq’s quest for revenge.
Although the themes of gender and artificial consciousness are what the book is known for, what really impressed me is how skillfully Leckie ties everything together – Breq’s history as One Esk Nineteen, her current journey, and the thousand-plus year history of the Empire throughout space, and a secret carried by the clones of Anaander Miannaai (the Lord of the Radch), all converge in the final confrontation. I highly admire everything Leckie was able to do with this book and would love to enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a bit of a challenge.
Ancillary Sword picks up just a few days after Ancillary Justice ends. Breq is given command of a ship and she accepts an assignment on Athoek Station which will take her close to the sister of the beloved lieutenant she had originally set out to avenge.
This book feels different from Ancillary Justice. There is no longer a dual-timeline to follow, and it seems that Leckie decided to keep some of the confusion of the first novel by hiding some of Breq’s thoughts and motivations from the reader. At first this annoyed me, but soon it becomes clear that to a certain extent Breq must mask her thoughts and actions well to prevent interference from Anaander Mianaai, who has programmed backdoors into many or most of the AIs in the Empire to control them.
The action in Ancillary Sword is considerably smaller scale. Breq, her crew, and the Athoeck Station are cut off from every other system in the Empire and those are also cut off from each other. Small bits of news leak to them, weeks late. The Empire is fracturing quickly following the events of the first book and the many planets are turning in on themselves. Suddenly, so much importance is placed on this officer having a crush on that civilian, on how unpleasant the single heir of a prominent owner of a tea-plantation is, and on the prolonged mourning rites for an alien translator who had been living on the station. Initially, it felt strange knowing that there are massive Empire-wide changes going on while Breq is dealing with the local politics on a single space station of a single remote planet – but these local politics have reached a tipping point themselves as a result of thousands of years of occupation and the Empire’s chickens are coming home to roost.
I enjoyed that this book started diving deeper into the tension between the different people colonized by the Radchaai. We are already made aware in the first book that the Radchaai have practiced aggressive annexation of hundreds of human systems and have in the past used slavery and genocide to maintain their control. It is this book that really shows how unequal the power structures are, and how the history of forced relocation and slavery with persistent injustice continues to oppress even people who are supposed to be considered “civilized” members of the Radchaai empire. It is a thought-provoking follow up to the first book.
Ancillary Mercy is the final book of the trilogy, which continues to deal with Breq’s piece of a shattering Empire. People on Athoek station start to strike, a mysterious alien representative shows up (which causes many people concern that they may soon be attacked by aliens), and an ancient ship from a lost culture appears to be waiting on the other side of a (supposedly) abandoned space gate. At times, it seems a disproportionate amount of the book was spent in detail drinking tea and working out the feelings between the many relationships of the crew of Breq’s ship, Mercy of Kalr. It might make the reader question how our identities change over time; what aspects of ourselves – if any – are intrinsic and immutable and what aspects are merely responses to our environment? It could have been too much personal exposition, except for the fact that in this book the emotions of AIs and their right to self-determination become a major turning point.
There are a few tense space-action sequences, but the resolution relies on Breq and the people of Athoek making new connections with the wider universe, making a stand, and coming into their own. Initially, it felt to me that Breq had abdicated her original purpose of revenge against Anaander Mianaai, except that she had acknowledged from the beginning she could never destroy all of Mianaai, and her new focus on Athoek seems like she is coming to peace with herself. Leckie acknowledges within the book that there are no real endings and it’s true that the future of Athoek, the Empire, and the many Anaander Mianaais is still uncertain. There’s work to do, and Breq’s solution is unlikely to keep everyone happy – I wonder if the people of Athoek will still see Breq as a colonizer, or if she will be able to step back and allow a new balance to emerge. After sitting with it for a while, I appreciate the unexpected solution-that-isn’t-a-solution a bit more than I initially did.
The Imperial Radch Trilogy is well worth a read, especially for anyone looking for a non-traditional storyline. Ancillary Justice was the book that affected me the most, although the world as a whole is fascinating to continue to explore throughout all three books. The depth given to language, culture, class, and personal identity will certainly be rewarding on rereads. Now I’m going to go have some tea.
*My first difficulty with the book was understanding the structure of the military crews. I ended up doing some searching throughout the internet to get this straightened out: A ship has a captain and up to 10 decades of soldiers per ship, each lead by a lieutenant. Each decade is named firstly for the ship (ex Toren), then for Amaat (the primary god of the Radchaai), then other emanations of Amaat such as Etrepa, Bo, Esk, and Var. The decades may be made up of one or more units, each unit of 10-20 soldiers. So when Breq is known as Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, it indicates that she part of the crew of the ship Justice of Toren, unit One Esk, and is the nineteenth ancillary of that unit. During this time, Breq may refer to herself by the ship’s name, or by the designation of one of the ancillaries depending on which capacity she is acting in at the moment.