Ancillary Justice
January 17, 2017 8:59 AM - by Ann Leckie - Subscribe

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
posted by Bulgaroktonos (36 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I just finished this and saw that there was a discussion about a FanFare thread last year, but it never materialized, so I figured I'd make one. I'm collecting my thoughts, but I'm curious what other people think.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:03 AM on January 17, 2017

I need to re-read this, but it's currently behind a wall of clothing and sundries that my partner needs to sort out into keep/donate bins.

When I finished this book, I was a little disappointed that it ended with what seemed like a setup for conventional space opera SF, since the rest of it was so unconventional. I'm really glad the series wound up continuing, though, and looking back it makes a lot of thematic sense. AJ could have been a simple revenge story, but choosing not to end Breq's journey with a failed act of revenge allowed it to grow into something more.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:09 AM on January 17, 2017

I've already forgotten everything about this book except that I never started Ancillary Sword, so off I go to do that. Thanks.
posted by Etrigan at 9:15 AM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed the decoupling of gender from physiology in the Radch (and that Leckie made it jarring for her patriarchy-dwelling readers with her choice of the feminine label) and that it was not universal, and that Breq wasn't very good at decoding gender outside of the Radch. She was more subtle (at least it read that way to my white self) but equally unambiguous about having the Radch value dark skin pigmentation more than light. Maybe POC view this differently, but I thought it was an effective tactic for world building and for provoking reflection in the reader.
posted by janell at 9:18 AM on January 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

When I finished this book, I was a little disappointed that it ended with what seemed like a setup for conventional space opera SF, since the rest of it was so unconventional. I'm really glad the series wound up continuing, though, and looking back it makes a lot of thematic sense. AJ could have been a simple revenge story, but choosing not to end Breq's journey with a failed act of revenge allowed it to grow into something more

Good to know, because that was my biggest complaint as well. Everything she was doing apart from the actual bones of the plot was unconventional and interesting and that was kind of vanilla.

The gender stuff got press at the time it was published, so I knew what I was going into, but actually reading it was an interesting exercise. My brain was still insisting on assigning everyone a gender, which I tried to turn off, but without much luck. Most characters were female except for Seivarden (who was given a male gender that I remember) and Skaaiat.

The other thing I really liked was the narration by Justice of Toren from the chapters where she was still the whole ship. I felt like it did a decent job conveying that sense of being multiply bodied and how that impacted awareness and thinking. That's a writing challenge that I thought was well handled. One image that was striking and will probably stay with me is when Breq at some point remembers singing songs written for a chorus alone, through her ancillaries. It was something that is, of course, possible, but I wouldn't have thought of it until she brings it up.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:55 AM on January 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

I think the overall trilogy addresses your complaints about the ending (the middle book is even more vanilla), but IMO the payoff is worth the setup.
posted by janell at 10:03 AM on January 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

My brain was still insisting on assigning everyone a gender, which I tried to turn off, but without much luck.

Yeah, it's difficult to get out of that mold. I tend to picture everyone in the Radch books as female, due to the pronoun choice, which tells me it was the right move on Leckie's part. I think even going with "they" or one of the more recently-constructed gender neutral pronouns would have just invited to picture everyone as male instead.

It bothers me that I still tend to imagine everyone as white until I hit a passage that comments on skin colour, though. Same thing happens to me with Jemisin's books, especially her Broken Earth series. Essun is plainly described as dark, but I still picture her as white or at most tan. Syenite is even harder for me in that regard. It's something that I need to work through, but the repeated reminders in the books definitely help.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:28 AM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not hugely visual reader, but I did like that Leckie made clear not only that most of her characters were dark skinned, but that dark skin was a mark of being of "good breeding." In general, I liked the world building. The Radchaai were a nice mix of identifiable real world elements (like their sort of Roman attitude toward foreign religion) with things that weren't. I found myself (and hope to as I continue the books) wanting more of Radch history and culture, especially more information about Dyson Sphere that's mentioned as the center of the empire.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:45 AM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I read this just recently! It has a ton of interesting ideas. I haven't read the rest of the series, but I look forward to doing so.

I agree that the Justice of Toren parts are unusual and fun, and must have been a challenge to write. It was very well handled. Echoes of McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, which I also loved.

Speaking of things I loved; the imagery of the temple space station, and all that it implied about the Radch. The structure of the Empire sounded rather Roman, but the station brought to mind descriptions of similar places in India, and in the end I wound up mentally giving an Indian overtone to my mental image of the Radch culture, and the way they look and dress and the things they build. (With the exception of Breq. I started picturing her as Tilda Swinton early on, and gave up trying to shake it.)

I also liked Seivarden's arc a lot. He started out kind of a dopey sidekick that contrasted Breq's competence, but in the end developed a unique perspective and sense of purpose and a sort of... I'm not sure "courage" is exactly the word, but a strength of character that I liked.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 12:30 PM on January 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

I love this series, have read it multiple times, because I find the character of Breq and her arc so captivating and "right".

However, the gender stuff always comes off as clumsy to me, because I think of everyone as "she" unless there's some other sign. You don't get to say gender isn't important while using a specifically gendered term. That said, I'm willing to chalk it up as different strokes for different folks, but the series itself was so good overall. Hell, I just might go reread it again.

AJ could have been a simple revenge story, but choosing not to end Breq's journey with a failed act of revenge allowed it to grow into something more.

The best way of looking at it is that AJ is the movie and the other two books are the tv miniseries that goes into detail.

I think there's at least one more book due about the Radch, sometime in 2018. Looking forward to it.

leaving her with one fragile human body

Uh uh, that body was anything by fragile and human, as Breq herself said repeatedly.

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:03 PM on January 17, 2017

Did anyone listen to the audiobook version of this?

I did! At first I found the cadence and tonalities of the reader's speech just slightly ... off, and difficult to listen to. After a while I got used to it, but as the book went on and the complexities of Breq's character were revealed I think that the reader also gradually assumed a more standard delivery. I assumed this was a conscious choice to indicate that Breq was not human before the text gave us the skinny on who she was.
posted by fawaffle at 7:25 PM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love this book so much, and loved it even more when re-reading it before finishing the trilogy this year. One thing that fascinated me was my own response to the gender ambiguity-first time through I found myself trying to guess at gender, assigning it to people, in general really fixated on it. This time my brain was able to let go of it-i developed mental images that were not dependent on gender. I also loved the small human touches-like the tea and the obsession with dishes-throughout the hugeness of space.
posted by purenitrous at 7:31 PM on January 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

this book is a great example of an unreliable narrator. Quite fun to read, quite fun to guess what's really going on that Breq is too self-assured to notice she doesn't notice.
posted by rebent at 6:21 PM on January 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

That aspect is something the sequels really double down on, to occasionally devastating effect.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:21 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed this book - and the whole trilogy - so much. If it had only been well structured, well-written space opera it would have been above 90% of the crappy scifi published these days, which in my opinion often suffers in exactly these two areas.

But Leckie gave us two fascinating, complex characters in Seivarden and Breq/Toren, and a simple - yet for me very effective - device/statement on gender which also ties into the broader thrust/theme of the trilogy.

I just found it immensely satisfying and it reminded me a bit of LeGuin's scifi, though perhaps not as cerebral, or masterful.
posted by smoke at 1:14 AM on January 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

On a whim, I just looked for fan fiction of this. It exists.
posted by amtho at 4:53 AM on January 19, 2017

I read this while I was rereading all of Iain M Banks' books. I couldn't shake the idea that the Presger were the Culture, and I kept trying to spot Breq's SC handler.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:18 AM on January 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I also found myself thinking of the universe in a very Culture mold.

I have not read 2 & 3 yet since I enjoyed this one but it wasn't quite as escapist/fluffy as my reading has been the last few years. Hopefully my lack of willingness to work at something a little isn't a permanent change in my aging brain.
posted by phearlez at 9:46 AM on January 25, 2017

Previously: Fan-trailer for Ancillary Justice. Tranlsating gender. WARNING- both discussion threads have trilogy-wide spoilers.
posted by Coaticass at 12:15 AM on January 26, 2017

I wish I had kept a link to the comment, but in a discussion about some internet security issue, I read the phrase, "When everything's decentralized there isn't a good way to know who to trust." I thought that was directly applicable to Anaander Mianaai.

I liked a lot in this book (and immediately bought and fell in love with the other two), but kept getting struck again and again by the protagonist struggling with being the agent of an evil empire, and trying her best to overcome that evil, both in her revenge plot and in herself. How do you go about seeking redemption for your whole society?
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:53 AM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think there's an interesting subversion going on with how these books have some stuff in them that seems like SJW fanservice, but it's kind of a trick.

To "traditional" SF readers Leckie's saying, "Here's your space opera, but all the characters are dark-skinned ladies, how do you like that?" To supposed SJWs she's saying, "Here's your dark-skinned ladies in space, by the way it's a violent Empire that does ethnic cleansing type shit."

I think it is being done in an interesting way, and not tooo much in a makes-u-think-don't-it kind of lazy way, which is one thing I like about the books.

This is actually my favorite of the three books. I feel like the next two books together would be single good book, and then there should be another book after that.
posted by fleacircus at 6:43 PM on February 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

You don't get to say gender isn't important while using a specifically gendered term

I agree, but I also think this is very much the point she is making.<
posted by Jon Mitchell at 9:20 AM on February 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

Ann Leckie answers the pronoun question on her website FAQ, comparing it to Finnish which uses hän for "he or she". For an English-speaking audience, Leckie "translated" Radchaai language by using only one pronoun (she) for that non-gendered Radchaai third-person pronoun, instead of one like ze/zir which isn't in common use and wouldn't have the mental jar it's supposed to have.

(E.g. everyone is referred to with she/her since Breq is narrating in Radchaai, except when speaking other languages that do distinguish, in which you learn Anaander Mianaai etc. is viewed as he/him in certain cultures/languages. Reading from the point of view from an English-speaking Earthian, that may mean our mental image of Anaander makes her more masculine; but for all we know Anaander could be viewed as high-femme on Earth but coded as a man on another planet due to status/appearance; tl;dr lol who kno) (that's what I love about it)

I'm currently halfway through book two in my second read of the series, and it is a highlight of my daily commute and downtime at home. Ancillary Justice is a great set-up but the following books have more interesting characters, imho.
posted by lesser weasel at 10:51 PM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've always assumed that the cultures which use masculine pronouns for Anaander do so because they're patriarchal societies that code power as inherently male. Being ruled by a feminine emperor would either be inconceivable or incredibly embarrassing, so they project masculinity onto Anaander regardless of how they would perceive her gender if she were any other person.

There's also a sort of unaddressed question of just how identical Anaander's clones are. They're obviously all recognisable as Anaander and presumably all drawn from the same DNA, but I wonder if she has small tweaks made to each clone so they resemble more closely the people they rule over, as a way of encouraging conquered peoples to identify with the empire.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:13 AM on March 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

but for all we know Anaander could be viewed as high-femme on Earth but coded as a man on another planet due to status/appearance

Similarly, there's a part early on when someone on Pseudo-Hoth calls Breq a girl... but we don't know whether that's because Breq's body has wide hips and big boobs, or because she just has long hair and a Hothian rube reads a male body with long hair as a woman; or a male body wearing a skirt, or pants, or whatever; or a male body without prominent makeup, etc etc
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:10 AM on March 16, 2017

Still betting that Breq is biologically female. But she's a genderless AI in a society that doesn't have separate words for genders, in a story "translated" by a female author in a society that does use separate words for gender,'s complicated.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:19 AM on March 16, 2017

I read this a while back and just finished the other two recently. Big fun, although now I'm thinking I should go start reading Banks' stuff because I was really enjoying the far-future space opera parts of it.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:44 PM on August 13, 2017

I just finished this and loved it. I pictured Ors as looking a lot like Indonesia, which might have been because of what the Orsians were wearing and the humidity rather than the swampiness. And then we see Breq’s idol which with multiple arms seemed similar to some Hindu deities. So by the time we got to the temple on the station, with flowers and incense offerings, I slipped easily into picturing it in a more Buddhist style.

It was a bit of a surprise to me to see comparisons to the Roman Empire, although it’s obvious in hindsight. I also wondered if the Radch was supposed to sound a bit like the Third Reich, about the time Anaander starts going on about maintaing purity and needing room.

Not that I’m reading anything into these references or similarities, just enjoying the layers of familiarity they allow us to bring to the story.
posted by harriet vane at 4:08 AM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

After reading other reviews of this, I’m a bit surprised by the number of people joking about tea. In many parts of the world tea is the most popular drink, not coffee or alcohol. Until the 90s in Australia we didn’t have much more than instant coffee, but we did have a range of teas available. And my grandmother practically lived on the stuff - as soon as she finished one cup she’d make another. Is this an American thing, is tea more unusual there than it is elsewhere?
posted by harriet vane at 6:22 PM on January 14, 2018

I wouldn’t describe tea as ‘unusual’ but it’s nowhere close to being the dominant beverage. It’s maybe on even footing with coffee-based drinks, but there’s a big segment of soft drinks.
posted by janell at 10:22 PM on January 14, 2018

The common wisdom is that the American preference for coffee is a vestige of the American Revolution and an aversion to things English. I have also heard that this is why our horses race in a different direction. Maybe the fact that the Americas had coffee plantations also had something to do with it.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:50 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I listened to the audiobook version and found the most jarring aspect that the reader was giving characters feminine and masculine coded tones, probably based on various hints as to their gender throughout the books. Otherwise I found it pretty easy to ignore gender, especially since on the provincial palace station the book makes clear that in Radchaai culture there are no sure signs of gender, even a "feminine" body means nothing.

Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot and will be reading the rest of the trilogy.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 10:30 AM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Er, also, while a lot of you here are invoking Banks I found the whole thing made more sense when I thought of it in Star Wars terms. It's got Ancient empires, unrelated human kingdoms and fiefdoms, giant battleships, faceless foot soldiers, and it's very soft on the Sci-Fi. It's basically "Star Wars, but Stormtroopers are directly mind-controlled by the Star Destroyer's AI, and Darth Vader has made thousands of copies of herself." Most of the Sci-Fi I've been reading lately has been pretty hard, so once I realized this wasn't trying to get the physics right I felt much better.

I love the fact the aliens are just unknowably alien, it's a welcome change from lots of Sci-Fi where aliens are just weird-looking people. I feel bad for the "translators" who were grown and raised by the Presger. I also dug the thought that there are pockets where people are WAY into transhumanism, which gave a better hint as to the state of technology in the universe. I also appreciated that the Radch wasn't just "Roman Empire... in space!" or "Persian Empire... in space!" It felt like a unique but recognizably human culture.

One last thought, what's stopping other people from using Anaander's human Xerox machine trick? I mean, other than it's obviously super illegal. Seems like if a person can make copies of herself and chain them together and an AI can take over hundreds of human minds it should be possible for a human to take over other human minds. I sort of expect this concept to come up in the later books, I'll be disappointed if it doesn't.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 3:00 PM on February 21, 2018

I also appreciated that the Radch wasn't just "Roman Empire... in space!"

(Which is kinda funny, because Leckie has been super open about the fact that the idea for the Radch came from reading a lot of non-fiction about how the Roman Empire functioned.)
posted by tobascodagama at 7:19 PM on February 21, 2018

Ancillary Sword!

(Which is kinda funny, because Leckie has been super open about the fact that the idea for the Radch came from reading a lot of non-fiction about how the Roman Empire functioned.)

I have thoughts! Look to later book threads for them.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:28 AM on February 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I had no idea what was going on at all in this book until the halfway point, when I suddenly said Ohhhh, and thoroughly enjoyed the rest, so thoroughly that I did that immediate-reread thing that I do with books that have gotten under my skin.

More revolutionary than the gender and race angle, to me, is the unitary identity angle. She sets up the narrator to have a kind of personhood that we are meant to find kind of appalling: she's essentially a colonist of a human body. What this personhood means, what it would feel like to be Justice of Toren, and what it would feel like then not to be, what moral weight we should assign to the fact of her colonialism given that she (presumably?) didn't choose it -- all super super uncomfortable and fascinating to think about. I don't think the book delivers neat answers to any of these.
posted by eirias at 3:35 PM on December 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

« Older Deadwood: Plague...   |  The Young Pope: Second Episode... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments