A Ship’s Revenge: A Review of Ancillary Justice

I’ve been meaning to read this book for awhile now, given all of the praise surrounding it. I guess normally you would call that hype, but after winning the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards, I think this book has moved past “hype”. And yes, I agree with the experts, this is a damned good story.

The protagonist, Breq, is an ancillary. She was once the combat ship Justice of Toren, an AI that controlled many ancillary bodies. However, at the start of the story, she has been reduced to the single ancillary body, her ship form and other ancillaries having been lost somehow. Told in first person, her story unfolds in one prolonged flashback sequence, showing she arrived at her present circumstances, alongside her progression in the present as she works to fulfill a plan to get revenge on those who are responsible for her losing her ship body.

The world building in this setting is incredible. The primary culture that we see, the Radchaai, do not distinguish between the gender of people, and so everyone is referred to with the pronoun “she”. The reader has to figure out what gender characters are based on descriptions, which can sometimes be vague as the Radchaai are often kind of androgynous in their dress and the way they act. Alternately, Breq does end up in some other systems where people do distinguish between genders, which causes confusion for her, as she always has to guess how to refer to people.

Not only are the Radchaai different in their approach to gender, but they are also atypical (from many sci-fi or fantasy races) in that they are primarily dark-skinned and have a polytheistic religion. The way that they dress, and the etiquette is also very well described and pretty fascinating. Certainly none of it is typically Western, which I found refreshing.

Leckie’s writing is also quite good, and her handling of Breq’s perspective is impressive. I find this to be especially true during the flashback sequences where she is the Justice of Toren and inhabits multiple bodies and once. In these scenes she hops between the different things the ancillaries see very fluidly, and though these different bodies might be having different interactions all at once, all of the important information of the scene is conveyed elegantly.

This is the first book of a planned trilogy, and while I wouldn’t say this story is exactly standalone, it does end at a satisfying juncture without any kind of total cliffhanger. The second book, Ancillary Sword, is out. I’m not entirely sure when I’ll get around to reading it, but I am curious to see how the series progresses, especially as the “flashback sequence” that was prominent in the first novel will not be in the second…at least I would imagine it’s not, as it seemed resolved.

Fans of space opera who haven’t already read this book, should definitely check it out. I can see why this novel generated such a buzz, and I think it lives up to it.

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