Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie

OVERVIEW: The Radch Empire. Lead by the many-bodied Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, this is a civilization that conquered the galaxy by annexing and absorbing worlds throughout thousands of years. Their mightiest weapons are starships equipped with an artificial intelligence core that links thousands of "corpse" or ancillary soldiers, allowing the AI to become mobile. As the Radchaai move from one annexed world to another force is used and resistance guarantees death, but once they triumph all inhabitants of that world become civilized citizens worthy of protection. With a class-based society as its core, for thousands of years the wealthy aristocratic Houses of Radch held the power and coveted positions in the military, grabbing first connections for future money-making endeavors when annexing new worlds. That changes when members of small provincial Houses begin to fill some of those positions and the seeds of resentment from the aristocratic Houses are planted and begin to grow.

Ancillary Justice focuses on characterization and an action driven slow-to-reveal plot instead of space battles, however, it is definitely a space opera with all of the romantic, melodramatic action, weaponry and science fiction details that are required of such a piece. The world-building is pure science fiction with alien-like places that provide excellent atmosphere, excellent gadgetry, and a particular focus placed on details pertaining to AI and the workings and evolution of the ancillary soldiers. Another unique aspect of the world-building is that in the Radchaai language only the female pronoun exists to specify gender. Everyone is referred to as "she" or "her," so that it is up to the reader to carefully asses who is male or female.

Although Breq Ghaiad is our main character and the narration is from her perspective, in reality, at times, there is a three-in-one narrative and perspective -- Justice of Toren, One Esk, and Breq. It sounds confusing, but it all becomes crystal clear and works quite well. Justice of Toren, a massive starship, once served the Radch Empire for over two-thousand years. Her artificial intelligence linked thousands of ancillary soldiers, including One Esk, the ancillary segment known for singing and collecting songs from different worlds. But twenty years ago, Justice of Toren was betrayed and destroyed along with her ancillaries. The only surviving segment of her intelligence is Breq, a lone AI soldier looking for revenge against the betrayer. This character's inner evolution and actions carry and drive the novel. She is thoroughly complex, with a hard core, the cold side of an AI soldier accustomed to violence and a sensitivity for music and love of singing that opens up unimagined doors.
My heart is a fish
Hiding in the water grass
In the green, in the green
-- One Esk's favorite song from Ors
Joining Breq in her journey is Captain Seivarden Vendaai. Long ago, the arrogant and aristocratic Captain Seivarden Vendaai had been one of Justice of Toren's lieutenants, although definitely not a favorite one. Later promoted to her own command, she had been thought dead for a thousand years when her ship was lost during a failed annexation. Seivarden was found frozen in a space pod, but unable to adapt to losses and changes that occurred during those thousand years, she finds herself lost and unstable. Breq finds her nearly frozen, bruised, bloody and almost dead in a remote planet, now an addict and a wastrel. Reluctantly, she takes Seirvarden along in her quest for revenge. Seirvarden's relationship with Breq is filled with revelations about both characters and becomes a catalyst as each pushes and pulls. The result is one of the strongest factors in this space opera, character growth. "Sometimes I don't know why I do the things I do." -- Breq

Breq's story shifts between the present and her past, alternating between chapters, as One Esk/Justice of Toren takes the reader back 20 years, narrating events that changed her world and lead to the present, and introducing Esk Decade Lieutenant Awn Elming. During the annexation of the planet Shis'urna, Lieutenant Awn has been in command of the city of Ors for two years at the request of the Devine priest. She has One Esk at her side along with a small twenty Esk ancillary unit from Justice of Toren under her command. Originally from an annexed world and a provincial House, Awn feels vulnerable in her position, but she is honorable, sensitive, brave and to One Esk, she is a favorite worthy of admiration. Her affair with the aristocratic Lieutenant Skaaiat Awer leaves her open to attack and eventually leads to disaster. Like tumbling dominoes, the devastating events that unfold in Ors end with One Esk set on the path to becoming Breq, the avenging soldier.

In the Ors sections, Leckie makes her revelations as the story moves along, divulging secrets at the most unexpected of times and keeping the reader on edge. Additionally, here is also where Leckie uses a multiple-perspective narrative from Justice of Toren and the different Esk segments -- a simultaneous narrative -- that gives the reader the complete scope of what is happening instead of the single point of view narrative. At the beginning, this style can be a bit disconcerting, but overall Leckie handled it beautifully. It is so well tied together that it seems possible.

Last, but not least, we have Anaander Mianaai the feared, all powerful and seemingly all knowing leader. Her actions in this story are questionable and she becomes Breq's bitter enemy. She is a key figure in this novel and a huge mystery. I will leave it at that.

CONCLUSION: If you want to know what surprised me the most about this space opera, it is how high emotions factor into the story, particularly since the narrator is well… artificial intelligence.  I became so immersed and involved with the characters, as well as the action, that I didn't want to stop reading. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is the first book in the Imperial Radch science fiction space opera. It is unique for its focus on the evolution of its characters as opposed to space battles. What does it mean to be human in a galaxy where artificial intelligence rules, but is also used by humans as a nothing but a weapon to conquer and build an empire? What does it mean to be civilized? What does it mean to be human? With one of the best AI narrative voices I've encountered for a long while, these are the questions that Leckie poses in her stunning sci-fi debut novel. Highly recommended.

Visit Ann Leckie here.

Trilogy (Series) by Orbit Publishers:
Ancillary Justice (2013)
Ancillary Sword (2014)
Ancillary Mercy (2015)

The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience

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