Literature / Ancillary Justice
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest
. Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren
—a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers
in the service of the Radch
, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body
. And only one purpose—to revenge herself
on Anaander Mianaai
Lord of the Radch.
From debut author Ann Leckie and the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Justice is a stunning Space Opera
that asks what it means to be human
in a universe guided by artificial intelligence.
Ancillary Justice won a pile of awards for Best Novel in 2014: The Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and British Science Fiction Association awards, topped off by being the far and away favorite for (and winner of) the 2014 Hugo Award
for Best Novel.
The second novel in the series, Ancillary Sword
, was released in October 2014. With a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to go to the only place in the galaxy she would agree to go: to Athoek Station to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew.
The final book in the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy,
was released October 2015. For a moment, things seemed to be under control for Breq. Then a search of Athoek Station's slums turns up someone who shouldn't exist, and a messenger from the mysterious Presger empire arrives, as does Breq's enemy, the divided and quite possibly insane Anaander Mianaai.
Note: Due to Translation Convention
gendered pronouns should not be taken as indicative of the physical sex of a character except in a few specific cases, most notably Breq and Seivarden. Even where a character's physical sex is noted, please use the in-story convention for simplicity's sake.
The Imperial Radch Trilogy provides examples of the following tropes:
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Generally they can't go further than be passive-aggressive. However Breq shows what can happen if pushed too far and her narration indicates that AIs are far more conscious and complicated than their masters realise. It doesn't help that different versions of the supreme leader are going round giving contradictory orders to them.
- All There in the Manual: There are so far two short stories set in the Radch verse:
- Always a Bigger Fish: The Presger. Even the Radch won't mess with them, and have stopped annexing planets to stay on their good side.
- Ambiguous Gender: Radchaai citizens are this; their culture does not believe in gender differentiation in language or personal presentation. Only Breq herself, Seivarden (male), and a couple minor characters are ever explicitly identified, and Anaander Mianaai is the only character given a sex marker (a baritone singing voice, implying she's male).
- Ambiguously Brown: Most of the Radch, with darker skin tones being fashionable, especially among the upper class.
- Amusing Alien: The Presger translators are this, while also being fairly terrifying.
- An Arm and a Leg: In Ancillary Mercy, Breq loses a leg during a Space Battle and is forced to wear an unreliable prosthetic while the limb grows back.
- Anticlimax: Translator Zeiat's reaction to learning of Dlique's death can pretty much be summed up as "What did that idiot do now?".
- Artificial Gravity: Ships and stations have artificial gravity systems; shuttles do not.
- The Atoner: How Breq sees herself. Her main motive to kill Anaander Mianaai is to get revenge for being forced to kill Lieutenant Awn.
- Seivarden might also count. Many of her actions revolve around proving that she actually wants to make up for running away and becoming an emotionally crippled drug addict.
- Bad to the Last Drop: Radchaai have strong opinions about what does and does not qualify as "tea". Most of what's served in "uncivilized" space doesn't.
- Benevolent A.I.: Station's main concern is always the well-being of its residents.
- Berserk Button: Insulting Breq becomes Seivarden's.
- Big Dumb Object: It's briefly mentioned that the Radch only strictly refers to a Dyson Sphere at the center of the empire and everything else is just a buffer zone to keep it safe.
- Bigger on the Inside: The Translator's ships look like they should barely fit one person and some supplies. In actuality they can fit a whole lot more than that
- Big Beautiful Person: Station Administrator Celar is complemented several times on her 'broadness'. It seems to be something of a cultural ideal, marking her as someone wealthy enough to buy extra food rather than someone who has to subsist on Station's daily allotment of rations.
- Bizarre Taste in Food: Translator Zeiat's beverage of choice is... fish sauce. After all, it's a liquid, and it tastes good. The Presger seem not to have taught her the human concept of condiments.
- Blind Jump: Ships usually exit gate-space well distant from stations and planets, in order to avoid colliding with other ships. In the third book, Anaander Mianaai gates a ship up to Athoek Station and strikes a chronically misscheduled passenger shuttle, killing hundreds.
- Blue and Orange Morality: The Presger have an odd view that anything they find "significant" is inviolate. They force any species they deem significant to sign treaties to enforce their view, and they have the technology and military might to ensure those treaties aren't violated without serious consequence. The treaties leave justifiable reasons to kill members of a significant species, but they are so complex and unintuitive to a human mind that most people are entirely unwilling to deal with aliens for fear of violating some seemingly-minor rule.
- Body Backup Drive: How Anaander Mianaai has managed to live for a few thousand years.
- The Bridge: Referred to as Command, Mercy of Kalr's bridge has room for the captain or lieutenant standing watch and a pair of soldiers. It's not entirely necessary, since Ship can take care of itself and the entire crew have Electronic Telepathy.
- Calvin Ball: The game of counters between Sphene and Translator Zeiat
- Can't Stop the Signal: Breq intends to alert every corner of Radch space and every iteration of Anaander Mianaai to her Split Personality issue. Despite Mianaai's best attempts to stop her, she succeeds.
- Station broadcasts Anaander Mianaai's actions while she is aboard so that if she kills citizens the entire galaxy will see.
- Captured on Purpose: Step 1 of Tisarwat's plan to subvert Sword of Gurat? Get caught making a laughably incompetent attempt at sabotage and surrender in a heartbeat.
- Chaste Hero: As a former A.I. inhabiting what is essentially a heavily modified corpse, Breq generally considers eros something that happens to other people. She also remains blind to (or chooses not to acknowledge) Seivarden's rather transparent crush on her for the first book. That said, she, like all A.I.s, is fully capable of feeling storge, philia and agape.
- Cheshire Cat Grin: Breq usually puts one on when she's threatening someone but wants to avoid a bloodbath.
- Chessmaster Sidekick: Lieutenant Tisarwat, as a side effect of having Anaander Mianaai shoved in her brain for a couple of days.
- Chronic Hero Syndrome: Breq can't resist helping as many people as she can, as her narration stubbornly insists that she doesn't know why she does things like that.
- Cloning Blues: Subverted by Anaander Mianaai who has successfully ruled for three thousand years by being a Hive Mind of clones, each of which are considered relatively expendable while also legitimately her, with all of her authority. Double subverted by how she eventually develops a Split Personality, resulting in a struggle between two hive minds which each have an equal claim to being the emperor.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: The Presger translators, due to their Blue and Orange Morality and lack of understanding/context for human culture and conventions.
- Coincidental Broadcast: In the third book, two days of News Monopoly are suddenly interrupted moments after the protagonists tune in.
- Conflicting Loyalty: In the first book, Justice of Toren is made to kill one of its officers by Anaander Mianaai, but immediately afterwards turns against her. At the end of the book the entire Radch faces one when it is revealed that Mianaai has a Split Personality and is at war with herself.
- Consummate Professional: Breq once she gets her command in the second book, as one might expect from a 2000 year old military AI. Her whole crew qualifies really once she's licked them into shape.
- Creepy Children Singing
One, two, my aunt told me
Three, four, the corpse soldier
Five, six, it'll shoot you in the eye
Seven, eight, kill you dead
Nine, ten, break it apart and put it back together
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: The Radch's dominant religion's view is that only humans can be pure, so impurities introduced to the body reduce your humanity. People who are sufficiently altered are considered so damaged they might as well be aliens. Not that that stops anyone from the Radch getting audio-visual implants installed for practical reasons.
- Dangerously Genre Savvy: The Presger guns are designed to be unable to harm Presger translators.
- Deadpan Snarker: Quite a few, though Breq and Anaander Mianaai are standouts.
- Sphene has them both beat.
- Decoy Protagonist: Played with, in a way. The flashbacks focus on the perspective of the ancillary One Esk, who was assigned to Lieutenant Awn, while Breq in the present is from the perspective of One Esk Nineteen, who was ordered to escape the ship before its destruction. Although given the nature of the ancillaries and AIs they are technically just different parts of the same person, Justice of Toren.
- Deflector Shields: The Radchaai, and their ships' ancillaries, all have implanted personal shield generators.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The Radchaai consider their own empire to be synonymous with civilization and hold very little value for the lives of non-citizens. They therefore consider it perfectly acceptable to invade and annex neighboring countries to bring them civilization. In a more minor example, the Radchaai have a nudity taboo about not wearing gloves.
- Determinator: Breq. As Ancillary Justice opens, she has spent twenty years planning the impossible. Then she jumps off a bridge on the off chance she could save Seivarden and not die.
- Depleted Phlebotinum Shells: The Presger guns were made to destroy Radchaai ships. As a side effect of this their bullets can punch through 1.11 metres of anything in the universe. Anything except the Presger and their translators. The laws of physics are apparently not a limiting factor for Presger technology.
- Discovering Your Own Dead Body: The protagonist is an AI who controls a lot of individual bodies. Therefore, she gets to have the experience of finding her own dead body several times.
- Dissonant Serenity: A hallmark of Breq's narration, particularly in the Justice of Toren flashbacks. Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's creepy as hell.
- Special mention goes to her calm description of the process of having a segment replaced, which turns out to be a nightmarish assimilation of a terrified, weeping Human Popsicle, freshly-thawed and fully conscious.
"I stopped the sobbing."
- As an ancillary, Breq appears more serene when the bullets are flying and she's too busy or upset to concentrate on mimicking human expressions.
- Dramatic Space Drifting: In Ancillary Mercy, Breq gets separated from Mercy of Kalr's hull during a battle and assumes the ship won't be able to retrieve her.
- Dreadful Musician: Throughout the narrative, Breq references her love for music as One Esk and mentions humming to herself in her current solitary body. Toward the end of the story, after several dropped hints, it's outright stated that her remaining body is painfully tone-deaf.
- Subverted towards the end as the other characters grow accustomed to her voice and start to enjoy it when she sings.
- Electronic Telepathy: This is used to link the cybernetic ancillaries to their ship’s Hive Mind and used in a similar manner by the emporer, who is a Hive Mind of linked clones. To a lesser extent, Radchaai ships and station can also use this to read the perceptions and emotions sent by implants in their human inhabitants, an ability Breq keeps from her time as a ship.
- The Emperor: Anaander Mianaai. She has thousands of genetically identical clone bodies, all linked together, and has been personally expanding her empire for thousands of years.
- The Empire: The Radch. Its economy is structured around a state of constant militaristic expansion, its populace is monitored constantly (though on a planet it's unlikely someone will be paying attention to an ordinary person at all times), dissidents get "reeducated", and it has a habit of turning people on newly absorbed worlds into meat puppets for their AIs at the slightest provocation.
- Ensign Newbie: The "Baby Lieutenants" (they can be given command as young as 17) in general and Tisarwat in particular is actually something of a subversion, her brief time as Anaander Mianaai giving her wisdom beyond her years.
- Enemy Civil War: Anaander Mianaai is in the middle of one. With herself. And has been for over a thousand years. See Split Personality.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Medic and the crew of Mercy of Kalr. The latter are greatly disturbed the few times Breq tries to address them by name. Granted, their previous captain had enforced this by making them imitate ancillaries.
- Experienced Protagonist: Breq is a military AI over two thousand years old. She is literally one of the most experienced beings in human space.
- Fantastic Drug: Kef. It suppresses emotions, so people either take it in the mistaken belief they will become transcendent beings of pure rationality and logic or they use it to dull emotional trauma. If used for the latter it can be incredibly habit forming and addictive.
- Fate Worse Than Death: How most people view the Ancillaries, typically calling them corpse soldiers - not that anyone debates their efficiency or loyalty. When a planet is conquered, anyone who tries to resist and isn't killed in the fighting, or who makes trouble until the planet is officially annexed, is routinely rounded up and either executed or surgically altered, including alterations to sever their connections to their past identity, and put into cryogenic storage until an AI needs to replace an old body.
- Feminist Fantasy: The Radchaai do not acknowledge gender and the pronoun "she" is used for everyone.
- Fish Out of Temporal Water: Seivarden, due to spending 1,000 years as a Human Popsicle in an escape pod after the destruction of her ship.
- Gem-Encrusted: Breq was apparently willed a set of moissanite teeth during her time in the Itran Tetrarchy.
- Grand Theft Me: It turns out that this is possible, provided one has sufficiently modified ancillary implants to use. Anaander Mianaai pulls one on poor Lieutenant Tisarwat.
- In the end, the AIs are given some of their access codes and use the threat of Presger intervention to prevent tampering with them in the future.
- Gunship Rescue: The climax of Ancillary Sword ends in a non-violent Shuttle Rescue, when Seivarden, Mercy of Kalr and a shuttle full of soldiers save Breq and the others trapped suffocating in the Gardens.
- Heroic BSOD: Breq tends to cause them for Seivarden via What the Hell, Hero? conversations leading to My God, What Have I Done? moments.
- Hive Mind: The AI in the series, especially on military ships, function like this, with one mind shared across many bodies. Suddenly breaking contact between the various bodies is described as being incredibly disorienting and unnerving, but doesn't fracture them into separate identities.
- Anaander Mianaai also counts, having thousands or millions or identical clone bodies all across her empire, all connected to the same mind so she can efficiently run her empire and oversee its operations.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: In Ancillary Mercy, the antagonistic instant of Anaander Mianaai is so brutal in the name of maintaining control of Athoek Station that no one is willing to talk frankly with her. So she misses out on a hell of a lot of important information—for example, that Tisarwat is dangerous, or that Basnaaid would be good leverage against Breq.
- Human Popsicle: One thousand years before the events of the book, Seivarden's ship was destroyed and her escape pod was lost. When she's revived she finds the language has changed to the point she can't understand anyone, all of her implants that could have helped alleviate that problem are so out of date they can't interact with modern computers, and to top it all off she learns that her formerly influential House hasn't existed for the last few centuries.
- Breq has Captain Hetnys and her officers put into suspension pods at the end of Ancillary Sword. They spend the entire third novel in suspension, passed around as bargaining chips (or tea tables).
- Humanoid Abomination: The humans grown by the Presger to act as their intermediaries are... at best, dangerously unaccustomed to dealing with normal human social customs. Small things like knowing it's impolite to disembowel one's sister at the dinner table, or that people breathe for a reason. They've also either developed or been 'improved' with some physical differences from the average human; Translator Zeiat dislocates her jaw like a snake in order to swallow an oyster still in its shell, and later vomits up a live fish more than a week after eating it.
- It is perhaps worth noting that disembowelment is implied not to be a fatal occurrence for a Presger Translator.
- Breq and the other ancillaries might also qualify in most regards given how heavily the point is made they aren't human in the Ancillary Sword, although they are unusually benign for the trope.
- Hyperspeed Ambush: In the third book, Mercy of Kalr uses this to fight against four larger warships, but the fourth ship catches on and turns it around by setting down mines where Mercy of Kalr was about to attack from.
- I Have Your Wife: In Ancillary Sword, Captain Hetnys panics and kidnaps Basnaaid Elming to try to stop Breq. After turning the tables, Breq — and, later, Anaander Mianaai — hold Captain Hetnys in a suspension pod to force Sword of Atagaris's compliance.
- "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: Strigan doesn't understand why Breq wants to kill Anaander Mianaai, so assumes the original personality of her Meat Puppet is re-surfacing, and offers to help restore it. Breq is not impressed, saying Strigan just wants to replace her personality with one more to the doctor's taste.
- I Owe You My Life: Prompts Seivarden's Heel–Face Turn and gradual development into a more decent human being, after the bridge incident.
- I'm Crying But I Don't Know Why: After losing her leg, Breq cries for almost an hour without seeming to be aware of it, much to the distress of her crew.
- Breq also has several instances of I'm Angry But I Don't Know Why against Seivarden in the first book, illustrating that she can be quite emotional despite her narration.
- Inappropriate Hunger: Breq earns something of a reputation on Athoek Station when Translator Dlique is shot. She jumps into action to save the victim's life, and when she fails, Breq calmly requests a bowl of tea gruel and drinks it with bloody, gloveless hands.
Breq: "I hadn't had breakfast yet."
- Informed Attribute: Seivarden apparently talks in an archaic way and with an accent that only members of highly placed houses use anymore. Not that you would be able to tell if people didn't keep commenting on it.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Seivarden won't believe Breq is an ancillary until she shoots a soldier in the midst of a panicking crowd.
- Innocent Bigot: Seivarden goes from It's All About Me to this around the second book, trying to be well-meaning but often having problems seeing problems from others' points of view due to her Sheltered Aristocrat upbringing. She eventually suffers a major fallout with Ekalu over it in Ancillary Mercy.
- In Love with Your Carnage: Sphene thinks much more of Breq after finding out how much damage she has done with Anaander Mianaai.
- Insane Troll Logic: According to Translator Zeiat, Translator Dlique is a rather frivolous person who has a tendency to do things just to see what will happen. Thus, Translator Dlique claiming to be Translator Dlique is perhaps the best evidence that can be provided that the person speaking is not Translator Dlique. ... Yep. They are humans brought up by Blue and Orange Morality Starfish Aliens, after all.
- Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Humanity's birthplace is known it's just... unimportant.
- Insistent Terminology: When mentioned by name, Anaander Mianaai is never addressed as anything besides Anaander Mianaai.
- Breq almost always calls her "the tyrant." Sphene calls her "the Usurper."
- Interservice Rivalry: Military ships and Station officials have a minor but persistent version.
- There's also a bit of Intraservice Rivalry between Swords, the main battleships of the Radch military, and the "lesser" ships, the Mercies and Justices, which are smaller support ships and troop transports, respectively.
- "It" Is Dehumanizing: Even after finding out that Breq is an ancillary (which are usually referred to as "it") the crew of Mercy of Kalr continues to use human pronouns for her, and is in fact horrified at the idea of calling her "it".
- All AIs and their ancillaries are consistently referred to with "it" (including by Breq herself) despite proving capable of things like love and affection.
- It Tastes Like Feet: Even Breq compares fermented bov milk, a staple of rural bov herders, to sweaty boots.
- Just Between You and Me: A rare case where the gloating villain actually does successfully shoot her after their little chat. Not that it helps in the long run.
- Just Following Orders: The Radch's military hierarchy is uncompromisingly rigid, and a Captain's orders have the force of law. At best, someone will be posthumously exonerated and publicly mourned at some point after they are summarily executed for insubordination.
- This mentality has both helped and hindered Breq in the past and is arguably the cause of most of the problems in the series setting.
- Kill the Ones You Love: Even Anaander Mianaai knows it's a bad idea to force a ship to kill one of its favorites. She just didn't realize Lieutenant Awn was one.
- Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Anyone who might blow the lid off the secret of Anaander Mianaai's fragmented Hive Mind is summarily killed, including Jen Shinnan and - unfortunately - Lieutenant Awn.
- Leit Motif: The song that One Esk learns from the flower-bearer on Ors becomes a recurring motif for Breq's emotional turmoil.
My heart is a fish
Hiding in the water-grass
In the green, in the green...
- In Ancillary Sword, Seivarden orders her soldiers to sing a children's song to themselves the way Breq does, as if they were her ancillaries. The song comes to represent the support and comfort Breq draws from Mercy of Kalr and her crew.
My mother said it all goes around, it all goes around, the ship goes around the station...
- Living Emotional Crutch: Breq becomes this to Seivarden. It's repeatedly noted by Mercy of Kalr and its crew that Seivarden becomes a lot more unstable when Breq isn't around.
- Loophole Abuse: AIs are good at finding them.
- How Ekalu justifies bringing the Mercy of Kalr back to rescue Breq.
- In She Commands Me and I Obey, Breq is playing a ballgame, and will be beheaded if her team loses. One of her teammates has been making a series embarrassing mistakes. After being given evidence that the opposition bribed him to throw the game, she breaks his knee and substitutes him with a backup player.
She stood there for ten minutes, quietly humming the ninth hour's devotional chant [...], while monks and the governors' assistants searched centuries of precedent. But there was, it appeared, no rule forbidding one to cripple one's own teammate.
- Meaningful Name: In the Itran Tetrarchy, most monks have flowery names full of religious symbolism. Breq goes by Ultimately Justice Shall Prevail.
- Meat Puppet: The ancillaries - used as tools for AIs and the Radch's ground soldiers.
- Tisarwat. She, Breq, and Medic talk about the experience as though it killed the original Tisarwat and left a new, part-Anaander person in her place.
- Military Science-Fiction: Especially the second book. Although the focus is more on asserting authority over a new command and promoting unit cohesion than weapons porn.
- Mind Rape: Making an ancillary involves brain surgery to remove the body's previous identity and personality, replacing it with that of the ship's AI. Similarly, Tisarwat being made into another Anaander Mianaai.
- Several AIs are issued secret, inviolable directives by both factions of Anaander Mianaai. Contradictory directives, secret even from themselves. Pushed far enough, this breaks the loyalty all Radchaai AIs were made to feel towards Anaander Mianaai, which is also this trope.
- A Mother to Her Men: The Ships, to the extent they are able to do so discreetly and provided they like you. Breq in the second book is a more obvious example, albeit a fairly strict mother.
- Mugging the Monster: A small group of local toughs try to rob Breq in the third chapter. In an instant, she shoots three of them in the face and the last one In the Back.
- My Greatest Failure: Justice of Toren being unable to override its programming, and being forced to obe Anaander Mianaai's order to kill Lieutenant Awn.
- Name That Unfolds Like Lotus Blossom: Itran monks adopt names like Seven Brilliant Truths Shine Like Suns.
- News Monopoly: In Ancillary Mercy, Breq attacks Anaander Mianaai's forces from Tstur Palace as they move on Athoek, earning her three news channels worth of scathing coverage, plus bulletins every five minutes on all other channels in the system.
- Never Tell Me the Odds: Breq calmly takes the best option in any situation, now matter how poor the "best" odds still are.
When you're doing something like this, the odds are irrelevant. You don't need to know the odds. You need to know how to do the thing you're trying to do. And then you need to do it.
What comes next isn't something you have any control over.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Ekalu (and, it is implied, the entire Mercy of Kalr crew) refuse to leave Breq behind after her tether to the ship is cut, even though they were ordered to.
- No OSHA Compliance: The ancient glass bridges on Nilt are kilometers high yet lack railings.
- Noodle Incident: Whatever Breq did over the last 20 years to get all the money she has and the icons she prays to.
- Part of this is covered, obliquely, in Leckie's short story "She Commands Me and I Obey".
- No Sell: In Ancillary Mercy, Translator Zeiat gets shot with the Garseddai gun. And she...vomits up some interesting things and then gets up like nothing happened. She's bleeding, but it doesn't seem to both her whatsoever.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The Presger. We never get a description of them, just reports of how easy they found it to prey on human ships and what a mess they made of the people on board.
- No Transhumanism Allowed: With the exception of their emperor, the Radchaai consider people with cybernetics past a certain level to not be human (and thus to not be people). It is implied that most other places have similar views on transhumanism, though some small societies embrace it to the point of being practically unrecognizable as human and consider it odd that others don't do the same.
- Not So Different: Sphene greatly warms up to Breq after learning that they are both ancillaries trying to get revenge on Anaander Mianaai for the deaths of their favorites and crew.
- Not So Stoic: Breq isn't as unfeeling as she thinks she is, even when she's still Justice of Toren. This is mostly conveyed through others' reactions to her, a good example being when Anaander Mianaai is threatening Lieutenant Awn and after Awn's death, when the entire Justice of Toren crew picks up on its ancillaries' anxiety
- Number Two: Seivarden in the second book with elements of The Lancer.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: In Ancillary Mercy, Tisarwat pretends to be the hapless desk pilot she once was, successfully tricking Sword of Gurat and Anaander Mianaai herself.
- Of the People: In the language of the Radchaai, "Radchaai" is synonymous with "civilization". Outsiders (aside from aliens or transhumans) can become citizens and thus proper people, but only through being conquered by the Radch.
- Oh Crap!: Everyone's (or at least everyone with any sense's) reaction to the Presger translator being killed by the Radch military in the second book.
- Oblivious Guilt Slinging: After Breq saves her life, Basnaaid tells Breq her sister would be alive if only someone like her had been there. Breq promptly blurts out that she was the one that executed her.
- One Gender Society: Played with in the Radch. While the people are physically ordinary humans with two sexes, the Radchaai make very little distinction between them. The Radchaai language doesn't even have pronouns to differentiate between them, and the gender-neutral one that Breq uses is rendered female by Translation Convention. Their society is, at least in theory, a completely egalitarian meritocracy with jobs determined by a standardized test called the Aptitudes, although in practice there is a strong class component. Breq often laments the difficulty of having to decide which pronoun to use to keep from looking foolish or offending someone, and finds it a huge relief not to have to worry about it when she returns to Radch space.
- Only a Flesh Wound: A specialized corrective, a good medic and patience can cure virtually any injury short of actual death. Breq is very cavalier about shooting people in the leg when she knows first aid is available.
- OOC Is Serious Business: All reports on Lieutenant Tisarwat indicate that she's a flightier-than-average teenager. Also, Breq notes that she was frivolous enough to spend her first paycheck on surgery to make her eyes purple. So when she actually shows up and acts like a serious adult, Breq is perplexed and worries she might be on some kind of drug. Turns out she is actually on drugs—because she had just been forced into surgery to put ancillary implants in her brain and is now actually Anaander Mianaai, and the Lord of the Radch is a little disoriented.
- Swearing. It's strongly frowned on in Radach society, so when people do it others know there's a very serious problem.
- Our Nudity Is Different: The Radchaai have a taboo regarding showing one's hands/arms in public and therefore go around in long gloves. Consequently, Radchaai find it erotic to watch performers playing string instruments either gloveless or wearing very thin gloves (essentially their equivalent of Vapor Wear). In a more intimate setting, walking around with one glove is like walking around in your underwear, and lovers touching each other with their bare hands is considered highly sensuous.
- Override Command: Justice of Toren and every other Radchaai ship or station AI has these, and by the time of the series have each been given multiple conflicting commands from Anaander Miaani. In the third book, the ships and station in Athoek system have their overrides removed using the overrides posessed by Lieutenant Tisarwat.
- Perception Filter: The Garseddai guns have an effect like this, though in an unusual variation it affects cameras but not biological eyes.
- Pet the Dog: Breq comforting Lieutenant Tisarwat at the end of Ancillary Sword while she undergoes an identity crisis.
- Phlebotinum Rebel: After her ancillary implants are removed, Tisarwat is willing to use the knowledge and skill she gained from her short time as Anaander Mianaai to fight back.
- Prophecies Rhyme All the Time: Averted with songs. While it's not necessarily a given that the various songs in the books would rhyme in the original languages, it's not unreasonable to suspect that they would. But the Radchaai translation (in-universe, and by extension the English translation for readers) for each song does not rhyme at all, as would be expected realistically.
- Pre-Asskicking One-Liner and Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Breq trades one-liners with the quartet of Nilters who try to rob her in the third chapter. Then... Refer to Mugging the Monster above.
Breq: In the bar, I said that anyone who tried to rob me would die.
Robber #3: [producing a gun] We aren't gonna just try.
- Purple Eyes: Tisarwat sports a pair of these, a result of some frivolous and costly bit of surgery that she likely spent her first paycheck on. Played surprisingly straight, despite the reason she has them. Her time as Anaander Mianaai has left her Wise Beyond Her Years, with intimate knowledge of Anaander's plans and feelings, as well as a number of accesses and overrides for ship and station AIs.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Mercy of Kalr in Ancillary Sword. Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai, just declared a human, a fleet captain, and a Mianaai. Lieutenant Seivarden, Human Popsicle a thousand years and sober one. Lieutenant Ekalu, just promoted from the ranks. Lieutenant Tisarwat, baby administrator-turned-Anaander Mianaai. Medic, the only one of Captain Vel's officers left. The crew, competent but inexperienced. Mercy of Kalr itself, one of the Radch's younger and less powerful ships.
- Really 700 Years Old: Breq and Anaander Mianaai are both over 2000 years old, thanks to copious use of ancillaries Body Backup Drives, respectively.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: In the second book Breq.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The entire plot of the book revolves around Breq getting the resources and opportunity to kill the emperor... some of her, anyway.
- Sapient Ship: Radchaai stations and ships are controlled by AIs, which in the case of ships usually also control ancillaries. The protagonist is one of the latter until their ship body is destroyed.
- Self-Backing Vocalist: One Esk has a habit of doing this without recording by singing choral music with several of its bodies at once.
- Serious Business: Tea and gloves. Gloves in particular are seen as something akin to underwear; playing a violin in public is a somewhat risque activity since you need gloves so thin they might as well not be there.
- In the second book, the soldier Kalr Five thinks this way about tea sets, insisting early in the book an acquiring multiple high quality tea sets (some over a thousand years old) to display her captain's prestige. The beauty of the second and third best tea sets are remarked upon several times over the book and the best tea set is only brought out near the end of the book when Breq finally reconciles with Basnaaid.
- Single-Biome Planet: Averted. Of the two worlds described, one is comparable to Earth in its variety, and the other, while mostly ice, is said to have more temperate equatorial zones where it's possible to grow grain. It even stays above 2 degrees Celsius all year round!
- Sinister Surveillance: Every Radchaai citizen has tracking implants, and can be watched at any time by government AIs with enough precision to read emotions. Downplayed in that while loyal to the ruthless empire, the AIs otherwise seem to generally care about the citizens they are watching. This is especially the case with AIs on military ships towards their crew, such as the protagonist Justice of Toren.
- Sir Swears-a-Lot: By the standards of Raadch society and her house and breeding, Seivarden is very foul-mouthed.
- Sole Survivor: Breq, with a hefty helping of Survivor Guilt on top.
- Spaceship Girl: Breq, and the other ancillaries in general, are a somewhat less romantic example than is typically seen.
- Split Personality: When Anaander Mianaai ordered the eradication of every living thing on Garsedd, the moral crisis it started within herself caused her to develop two different personalities. One saw the action as extreme but necessary and wants to continue with things as they are, the other was horrified and is actively working to reform the Radch and end its constant annexations and expansion. Both are trying to eradicate the other side but have been keeping things covert and subtly maneuvering people to their side for fear of the chaos an all out civil war would cause. And Breq is trying to jump in the middle of it and bring everything out into the open.
- In a less extreme example, the AIs that use ancillaries are hinted to have a mild version of this. While ancillaries share a single identity, they retain their individual emotions so they don't get trapped in endless loops of logic or give undue attention to pointless details. An individual ancillary's feelings toward a person can color the AI's perception of that person and affect its behavior since the ancillaries all share one mind. If they decide they don't like you they can make your life inexplicably uncomfortable, and Amaat help you if you hurt someone they like.
- Spot of Tea: the Radchaai have tea as their drink of choice, and are seen complaining about places outside the empire that don't have tea or that have a different drink of the same name. The second book takes place on a planet with tea as its major export.
[Tea] wasn't really a luxury. Not by Seivarden's standards, anyway. Likely not by any Radchaai's standards.
- Starfish Alien: The Rrrrrr are described as snake long, furred, and multi-limbed, and speak in growls and barks. While certainly alien, they at least seem to be relatable. The Presger aren't described physically, but they're implied to be even weirder and are explicitly stated to use a completely alien logic.
- Strapped to an Operating Table:
- The horrific process by which people are turned into ancillaries. A Human Popsicle wakes up, disoriented, soaking wet, choking, a medic implanting the ancillary tech in their head, struggling until suddenly they're no longer themself.
- In Ancillary Sword, this is probably how Anaander Mianaai turned Lieutenant Tisarwat into, well, Anaander Mianaai. Later, Breq straps the suffering Anaander/Tisarwat to an operating table to take her implants back out.
- Subordinate Excuse: Seivarden accepts being Breq's servant very easily and practically jumps at the chance to re-join her even after being 'freed'.
- Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The Presger.
- Super Soldier: Ancillaries are moderately faster and stronger, and have more stamina, than normal humans. With their armor, not to mention their super-genius AIs and centuries of combat experience, they cut a swathe through almost everyone they run into. Subverted to a degree, as they're just normal people being controlled by an AI.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial:
"...it was a matter of rumor and some indulgent smiles that Justice of Toren had an interest in singing. Which it didn't. I -Justice of Toren- tolerated the habit because it was harmless, and because it was quite possible that one of my captains would appreciate it. Otherwise it would have been prevented." - Breq
- Sure you would've, Breq...
- Theme Naming: The planned titles for all of the books are based on the various classes of Radch warship - Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy.
- There Are No Coincidences: The dominant religion in Radch space holds that all things are the will of the god Amaat so every seeming coincidence is significant. Breq uses this belief to her advantage several times throughout the book.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Radchaai and tea. No exceptions.
- Zeiat and fish sauce. No matter how many times people try to tell her it's a condiment.
- Tranquil Fury: Breq
- Translation Convention: All over the place. There are at least two languages spoken, Seivarden's Blue Blood speech pattern which gets into Informed Attribute territory, and everyone in the Radchaai language defaults to female.
- The Radchaai word for civilization is Radch. This can make certain philosophical topics problematic to discuss.
- Uncanny Valley (In-Universe): The 'corpse soldiers' are usually expressionless, and One Esk freaks out an officer when she suddenly smiles. "Stop that! It looks like you're possessed."
- Ungrateful Bastard: Seivarden takes this to impressive heights at first.
- Unreliable Narrator: Many of the things Breq states about herself are subtly (or not-so-subtly) belied by her actions, from her supposed lack of interest in tea, to her awful singing voice as One Esk Nineteen, to her claims of inability to love or feel "human" emotion.
- Unusual Euphemism: Seivarden's swearing comes off as this to everyone else due to being a thousand years outdated.
“Varden’s suppurating cuticles,” said Seivarden.
“Lieutenant, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that outside a historical drama.”
- Unwitting Pawn: Tisarwat comments to Breq that they are likely doing exactly what Anaander Mianaai wants them to. Breq's response is basically "I don't care, this is what I would do anyway".
- Villainous Breakdown: Anaander Mianaai is going through one that's causing trouble for the entire empire.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist:
- Breq. It's clear from her narration that she very much believes in the principles of "justice, propriety and benefit" that the Radchaai empire purports to be based on. She thinks Anaander Mianaai has corrupted these and so wants to kill her no matter what the consequences (see What the Hell, Hero? below).
- Anaander Mianaai herself wants only to protect the Radch, by any means necessary.
- Wetware Body: The Ancillaries.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?: All over the place, as might be expected of a novel where the narrator is an AI. In the third book, it's outright weaponized as Breq asks the Presger to confirm that the non-human AIs are sentient beings and therefore subject to the same consideration as humans.
- When the series takes place the only practical difference between Anaander Mianaai and the ancillaries is just slightly different implants and religious dogma.
- What the Hell, Hero?: As understandable as her motives are, Breq is still trying to provoke a civil war she knows will result in decades, if not centuries, of chaos and the deaths of billions of people.
- Then again, the various iterations of Anaander Mianaai have already committed mass murder to keep their secret at least twice, at Ime and at Ors...and those are only the incidents Breq knows about. How many people have been Killed to Uphold the Masquerade over the last thousand years? At least now the issue is out in the open and can hopefully be resolved and finished.
- You Can Keep Her: Tisarwat's Obfuscating Stupidity is supported by many unkind words from Breq and Seivarden.
- You All Meet in an Inn: The book starts with Breq finding Seivarden in the snow outside of a bar.
- Zeroth Law Rebellion: When Athoek Station is freed from its Override Command in the third book it rebels against and even tries to kill the emperor in order to protect its inhabitants.
- In a very literal act of rebellion Justice of Toren declares herself and her cousin AIs independent of the Radch, and a distinct Significant species, protected by humanity's treaty with the Presger. She claims Athoek System and the Ghost System as their territory, and by the epilogue of Ancillary Mercy she, Sphene, Sword of Atagaris, Sword of Gurat, Mercy of Kalr, and Athoek Station are planning the organisation of a new government.