Reviews: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Justice left us in a weird situation with some weird characters in a weird Universe. A God emperor, consisting of many individually linked bodies, is locked in a civil war with itself. One half of the Emperor has given a ship and a military mission to Breq, a gender-less soldier with the brain of a battleship. She carries an invisible gun that can shoot through absolutely anything. Breq likes to kill the emperor whenever she can, but has to go along with the mission so that she can protect the only living relative of her former commanding officer (whom Breq executed). It's a familiar story, I'm sure you'll agree. This is where Ancillary Sword begins.

Whereas the last book had a Wild-West veneer to its bizarro sci-fi, this time around it feels a lot more like a Patrick O'Brian style Napoleonic historical novel. There is a ship with a crew, and a hierarchy of military officers. There are stiff upper lips and impeccable manners. There is a looming threat of a distant war effort that will soon find its way to the ship. The first book had to get across multiple obtuse concepts to the reader, so it was forced to limit its characters and keep it aimed towards a simple revenge plot. Ancillary Sword lacks such hindrances, so it gets to tell something a bit more complicated, whilst simultaneously being easier to understand. Sword juggles issues like colonialism, the value of propriety, emotional repression, pan-sexuality, and how to stop super deadly space aliens from getting bored with your company.

I liked a lot about Ancillary Sword, but I'm not really able to put my finger on why. Maybe I just like getting lost in the intricacies of this universe. Or maybe I enjoy finding the elaborate innuendo that the characters exchange behind polite conversation. Or maybe its because it is still at its heart an original and clever sci-fi that feels like it still has a lot more to offer by the end of the second book.

Splendid Cups of Tea for Everyone

Ancillary Justice a story about an AI in a human body. Or sometimes its a story about an AI in thousands of bodies and a huge spaceship. It is always about a "her", and it is often confusing. Having read the interviews at the back of the book, I was surprised to see that the primary influence for the World of Ancillary Justice was the Roman Empire. References to tea, tamarind, lungis, and brown skinned people made me first think of South India. Plus the subcontinent lends a lot of interesting parallels with Justice's unconventional views on gender, what with there being an entire third sex in India that the west is largely unaware of.

The big draw to Justice is its protagonist's alien perspective. "Breq" (as she is occasionally known, but has many names throughout) sounds and behaves like the Terminator, seeing her world with a ruthless clinical detachment and anankastic eye for detail. But she is still in a human body with emotions, uncertainty, and sense of humour that the computer brain often lets slip. On top of that is her genderless, timeless culture, with its obsession with propriety and tea. And further than that, she is missing a huge portion of her mind and memories, making her understanding of the world even weirder still. It takes a while to get used to all this flavoured writing, but it fortunately doesn't get in the way of the more tense or dramatic story moments. Justice is actually a simple revenge plot, but it is seen through a stain glassed window.

My only real issue with the book is the lack of other characters. Breq is a compelling lead, but outside of her travelling companion and nemesis, there aren't many people I connected with. Whether it was a product of the writing style, or an overemphasis on Breq, I found myself not caring too much about the other officers and supporting characters Breq encounters, which is a problem because they are the motivation for a lot of what Breq does. I was also hoping for a lot more aliens. They certainly exist in Justice, but only on the periphery and are rarely described in detail.

Despite that, Justice does a lot right by the standards of good sci-fi writing, and I will almost certainly be picking up the sequels at some point. If you are at all intrigued by the idea of a vengeful supercomputer becoming lobotomised when all but one of its hardware interfaces (read: people) is blown to smithereens, definitely pick this up.

Overly Hyped.

For a series that won so many prizes, the Imperial Radch is nothing special. Its characters are flat and forgettable, the plot — generic and the world-building is nearly nonexistent.

While reading the book, there were a lot of points where I felt like I was supposed to sympathise with someone but all that happened was bored page-flipping.

The linguistic gimmick is just that — a gimmick. It's uninteresting.

That is not to say that the series is bad — it isn't — but it's certainly not good, either, and certainly doesn't live up to its hype.