Ancillary Justice is one of those high science-fiction reads that screams: how can you NOT read me? It won the Nebula in 2013, the Hugo in 2014, and a Locus award in 2014 (complete trifecta) – and the list of awards and nominations goes on and on. That’s quite the impressive feat for a first-time novelist. Orbit | Paperback | 2013 | 386pp
The main character is Breq, formerly known as the Justice of Toren. The first half of the book rotates back and forth, chapter by chapter, as we see Breq now and twenty years earlier when she was Justice of Toren.
She’s not human. Breq is an ancillary unit in an ageless human body with lots of sophisticated upgrades including built-in armor. Twenty years earlier and for two thousand years prior she had been the Justice of Toren, a giant starship used for annexing worlds. On these starships owned by the Radch empire, each ship is its own being. And among the human lieutenants, officers, and other personnel, the Justice of Toren also had a number of ancillary units, her own intelligence implanted into human bodies, which roamed the decks, performing menial tasks to support her crew. She had cameras, she had sensors, she had human eyes all around. She also had favorites.
Justice of Toren was stationed in orbit around Shis’urna, a planet on the far-reaches of the Radchaai empire and her officers were on the tail-end of the very last annexation. The annexations are always difficult at first – people rebel, they’re killed, and it takes years for the population to finally submit and become “civilized” Radchaai citizens. For the most part, the citizens on Shis’urna are compliant, but a small civil uprising begins just as Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, is about to visit.
Justice of Toren is on the planet as several human-bodied ancillary units called One Esk. She performs many functions simultaneously such as keeping a watch over the people from her many eyes, keeping in contact with the mothership, and taking care of Lieutenant Awn. The uprising is small but the results are disastrous. Moreover, there are some key elements that point to some kind of insider subterfuge. And when they’re back on the ship, the Lord of the Radch orders One Esk to do something she doesn’t want to do. She’s built to follow orders from Anaander Mianaai, and be happy about it (or compliant at the very least) – but for the first time, she’s not.
A new awareness takes over and the Justice of Toren is split. She is destroyed along with all of her inhabitants, but not before a single One Esk (number seventeen) is able to escape.
“Nearly twenty years later ‘I’ would be a single body, a single brain. That division, I-Justice of Toren and I-One Esk, was not, I have come to think, a sudden split, not an instance before which ‘I’ was one and after which ‘I’ was ‘we’. It was something that had always been possible, always potential. Guarded against. But how did it go from potential to real, incontrovertible, irrevocable?”
Present day Justice of Toren One Esk calls herself Breq, and she has a score to settle. It’s been twenty years since she was betrayed and she knows who and why. She’s on a remote planet looking for the one weapon that can bring her justice, and she’s not going to stop until she finds it.
This space opera is highly detailed and complex and there are some fascinating peculiarities that elevate this book from the norm. The most obvious is the genderless society of the Radch. All pronouns are female and, although human, there is no distinction between male of female. Biologically, there are men and women, but they all refer to one another as ‘her’ and ‘she’. This can be a tad bit confusing when we are desperately trying to determine if a character is male or female. In some cases, we just have no idea – in other cases, it’s spelled out.
Another fascinating facet is the artificial intelligence of the ships. Each starship has its own sense of self, its own ancillary units, and its own personal attachments. We hear of ships that have gone ‘mad’ after losing their captains, and have wandered the universe alone in emotional devastation. We also hear of ancillary units that have separated in thought and desire from their starships, thereby fracturing into two separate consciousnesses.
Finally, we have Breq. She’s my new AI hero. Strong, determined, relentless, and a complete badass when necessary. Searching a hostile planet for her secret weapon, the locals mistake Breq for a lone woman and an easy target. Right away we discover that Breq is no one to be trifled with; she’s the female version of Mad Max. Or Rambo. No – the Terminator.
And yes – we know that Breq is indeed in a female body. I don’t consider this a spoiler since it’s revealed on the second page of the book, even though there seems to be a serious amount of confusion as to her gender. Seriously, it’s on page two! She’s referred to as a “tough little girl” by the gendered Nilter.
Ancillary Justice is highly recommended for all science-fiction fans. And if you find that you love this book as much as I do, you’ll be happy to note that this is the first book in the Imperial Radch series, and the second book Ancillary Sword is already out in bookstores.