Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Just finished reading Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  It would be easy to say I had mixed feelings about this but to be honest I don’t have mixed feelings at all – it simply, and bluntly wasn’t for me!  And, that’s in spite of having some very original (to me anyway) concepts and from having what I considered to be a very good ending.

Set far into the future Ancillary Justice is a space opera of epic proportions.  At the start of the story we follow Breq, currently residing on an unfriendly and largely inhabitable ice planet Breq comes across a former colleague, Seivarden, who has been attacked and lies dying in the cold – that is, until Breq intercedes.  This is a strange relationship between two characters who have no liking for each other. Now, jump back approximately 20 years and follow the story of One Esk Nineteen of the Justice of Toren warship.  One Esk is an ancillary, an AI, linked to many other similar AIs all sharing their thoughts and actions.  I’m not quite sure how to describe ancillaries other than that they are simply shells of people that have been used to create armies to be used by the Radch Empire in it’s quest to rule the stars.  Bear in mind at this point that these are not the only avatars being used in the story.

What becomes fairly quickly apparent is that Breq and One Esk are in fact one and the same character – except all One Esk’s former counterparts were destroyed along with the Justice of Toren about 20 years ago.  Breq, the only survivor now seeks revenge upon the person responsible – the Lord of the Radch – Anaander Mianaai.

So, what did I like about the story.

Well, without a doubt, there’s a lot to comprehend. This is a story of revenge.  It’s fairly involved given all the characters and different systems plus becoming familiar with all the names, back story and the way the AIs function plus trying to get a feel for Breq and Seivarden.  It’s a book of politics that takes a look at issues of class and inequality.  The measures to which some societies will go to impose their will upon those that they deem ‘uncivilised’ and in the act of doing so commit all manner of atrocities themselves.  It is, without doubt a thought provoking book and whether you like it or not it will definitely make you sit and consider things.

I actually liked that the author has come up with a system where sexual identity seems to be left undefined.  The dominant culture seem to use a language that uses primarily the word ‘she’ although sometimes with a scattering of the word ‘he’.  In their language and culture this is acceptable but does lead to difficulties when conversing with people from other cultures. What I actually really like about this concept is that whilst reading the book I didn’t have any defined ideas of how a person should be acting because of their gender.  In fact this was really a breath of fresh air.  I wasn’t thinking about the dynamics of possible relationships between characters or whether a character was acting in a way that I thought they would or should because of any predetermined ideas based on their gender.  I was simply concentrating on the story.  Such a great concept.  But, that being said, I didn’t like the way it was executed.  In other words everyone described using the female pronoun ‘she’.  Why?  I think it was a little confusing to be honest.  If you’re going to have a genderless society or at least – not genderless because clearly there are males and females but a society where ‘he’ and ‘she’ have become irrelevant somehow in terms of the language then why still specify one of these?  It just seemed odd to me and jarred a little plus it just felt a little confusing (although I admit that could just be me and the fact that I’m such a newbie to sci-fi).  I mean, I just don’t get it.  Why would you ever reach a point where you drop one of these descriptors but not the other?  If you’re trying to reach some sort of equilibrium it clearly makes sense to drop both altogether doesn’t it?

The other slight negatives for me – in a universe this size, how likely was it that Breq would have come across Seivarden – seems a bit too convenient a plot point – and yet, did Seivarden really add anything? Other than getting Breq a foot in the door towards the end probably not – although I concede that both Breq and Seivarden were having identity issues and their journey together seemed to alter them both – which was actually one of the more enjoyable elements of the story for me. Plus, whilst I did like the ending it felt a little bit too easy in parts.  I can’t say more because I don’t want to spoil it.

Anyway, I can’t deny that there are parts of this story that were really good and I did become quite gripped towards the end but to be honest this wasn’t really for me and put simply it didn’t hold my attention the way I thought it would.  Can a good ending redeem the book – sometimes, but in this instance I don’t think so.  This book took a lot longer than I would have expected because I kept putting it down and finding it hard to pick up again.  I’m clearly in a minority as it seems to be very popular so I certainly wouldn’t try and dissuade anyone from reading but I doubt that I will continue with this series.  I must confess that I feel a bit grumpy with myself for struggling with this one and feeling like somehow I’ve missed something fundamental or just been too plain dense to ‘get’ it – I really did want to love it but it just didn’t happen and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

This is my first read for Sci Fi November 2014.  Check out the details here.

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29 Responses to “Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie”

  1. Nathan

    Little Red got to you I see =)

    Obviously I disagree completely, even on the ending that I considered one of its weaker points. But we don’t disagree much so I guess I can let you have this one my friend. =)

    • lynnsbooks

      Haha, I just really couldn’t get on with it – it’s taken me two weeks to read believe it or not! I can’t believe it – the ending was the only time I started to enjoy it – well, that’s probably not totally true. There were a few moments that I started to think I was getting into it but then they’d just fade out again!
      I guess it’s not going to be my most popular review. It’s a very well liked book after all and I’m obviously a bit of a weirdo!! I don’t think it helps that sci fi isn’t my first love and definitely not my comfort zone. I think I tend to like either the type of sci fi that makes me giggle like Hitchhikers or I tend to like the older books. I’ve still got Fortune’s Pawn and Leviathan Wakes. Let’s see how I get on with those. Actually, thanks to you I fancy dropping them all and reading Eli Monpress!
      Lynn 😀

  2. Tammy

    I still haven’t read this but definitely want to, mostly because I want to see if I will like it or not. I sometimes fall on the opposite side of popular books, so you never know!

    • lynnsbooks

      I would love to see what you make of it – you’ll probably love it!!
      Lynn 😀

  3. Lynn E. O'Connacht

    Why would you ever reach a point where you drop one of these descriptors but not the other?

    If a language ever reached that point did it’d be because linguistics. If it happened to English, we’d most likely lose ‘she’ and ‘it’ because the society we live in assumes male by default. In English ‘he’ is used both as a male-gendered pronoun and a generic gender-unspecified pronoun. It doesn’t always get used as ‘referer to a male-identifying person’, but it does get interpreted that way because of how English pronouns work. If ever the English language evolves to a point where gendered pronouns are dropped entirely, ‘he’ (or possibly ‘they’) will probably win out as the standard pronoun for everyone since it’s already got an established meaning as ‘generic supposedly genderneutral pronoun’.

    So, by making the default pronoun ‘she’ which lacks that generic-use history, Leckie is making that assumption we bring into the text visible and forces readers to engage with it for at least a little while. It’s a conscious and stylistic choice (that I think fails utterly) on Leckie’s part. She has a discussion on her choices here, if you’re interested. ^_^

    And… Language geeking aside, I have so many mixed feelings about this book. It was one of the best books I read last year, but it was also one of the books I disliked the most. It gave me so many feels and when I clicked with it I really clicked with it, but… I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel since what didn’t work for me was such an integral part of the society and the narrative. I thought it was a really good and powerful story, but ultimately not for me.

    • lynnsbooks

      Lynn
      How come you always know all of this!! And, thank you for the link. I’ll definitely check it out. It’s definitely a thought provoking book. It just wasn’t for me which was a bit unfortunate as it seems so well liked so I was genuinely looking forward to it. Did you post a review – I don’t remember seeing one – I’ll have to come and check out your thoughts?
      Lynn 😀

      • Lynn E. O'Connacht

        *ducks head and blushes* It was part of my degree. ^_^; I like (English) linguistics for all that my focus was literature.

        Definitely unfortunate! It’s such an awful feeling to have a book you’re really looking forward to and then when you read it just… doesn’t click with you, isn’t it? I hope the next book you read will be a much, much better fit! I’m happy that the book is so well-liked and I can see why, but it wasn’t for me. (I did, however, like it far more than most modern-day popular books I’ve read.)

        I did! Well. Mostly I posted a mini-rant on the pronouns. *rummages around* It’s here if you want to read it. ^_^ I hope it’s not too muddled. I can’t seem to get the hang of writing coherent essays. 😦

      • lynnsbooks

        I think it’s an excellent essay and thanks for the link, I enjoyed reading your thoughts which were certainly most coherent!
        It is unfortunate that this one didn’t work for me but I’m glad so many others have enjoyed it. I wish I could be part of that too because it’s great when you love a book and feel like you’re in great company with everyone else. But, literally, you really can’t love all the books and that’s the top and bottom of it.
        Let’s see what the next one brings. The beauty of books is there’s never a shortage of them queuing up to be next in line.
        Lynn 😀

      • Lynn E. O'Connacht

        Thanks. I’m glad it made sense. ^_^

        And yes exactly! It’s unfortunate that the book wasn’t for us, but I’m glad other people got to enjoy it so much. I hope they’ll enjoy the sequel(s) as well! And we’ll just dive back into the sea of books to see what else we find. ^_^ All those shiny, lovely books for us to read. ❤

  4. bendingoverbookwards

    I have to say, I love this book but I agree with your point about the coincidences that keep happening. I think it’s vaguely ascribed to ‘fate’, but it can still be a little unbelievable and takes you out of the action a bit. I love Sci-Fi November- I’ve only really started getting into Sci-fi recently so it’s nice to meet a fellow newbie 🙂

    • lynnsbooks

      This is one of those books where I was almost arguing with myself writing the review. I can see why people enjoyed it but for some reason it just felt like it dragged. I can’t help wondering if it’s partly down to my mood this month – which to be fair, hasn’t been the best month – because this does affect how you feel about your reading. I’m definitely a newbie, this is totally outside of my comfort zone although I do usually try and join a couple of events – this is my first time with this event but there’s usually a Vintage Sci Fi over at Little Red Reviewer – you might enjoy that (I usually only read 3 or 4 for that event but sometimes you come up with such a good read. Last year – Flowers for Algernon which I thoroughly recommend. Thanks for the comment – I’ll stop over and check out what you’re reading for this – perhaps you’ll choose something I can read and comment along with.
      Lynn 😀

      • bendingoverbookwards

        Woah, I’d never seen that challenge before- thanks for the recommendation! That looks really interesting. And I know what you mean about your mood affecting how you think about a book- When I’m in a really foul mood I notice my reviews get a little harsher! 🙂

      • lynnsbooks

        It’s a great event, Andrea is awesome and a lot of bloggers get involved – plus, because it’s vintage it’s just really interesting seeing what people come up with. The other – is Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings – last year he ran a sci fi event in December – not sure if he still has plans this year of not but his blog is also pretty excellent – he runs two events during the year – called Once upon a Time and RIP (In Spring and Autumn). They’re both really good fun – sorry if you’re already aware of those and I’m just teaching you to suck eggs!!!!
        Lynn 😀

      • bendingoverbookwards

        No, not at all, I’m new to this whole blogging thing so it’s great to hear about all these events- it’s exactly the kind of thing I’m interested in and why all this book blogging is so exciting!

      • lynnsbooks

        My thoughts exactly.
        Lynn 😀

  5. Bookwraiths

    Eloquent honesty. I commend your bravery and respect your opinion. 🙂

    • lynnsbooks

      Why, thank you! 😀 I’m sure it’s not going to be my most popular opinion but you just can’t love all the books all the time!
      Lynn 😀

  6. Carl V. Anderson

    I’m happy for the author and all her success, but I started reading the book right after it came out and just could not get into it. I will admit that I made the early judgement that the gender stuff felt like a gimmick to me. I’ve been told that is not the case, but I couldn’t get past it. And I read reviews from professionals that I respect (or listened to reviews) that lead me to believe that it was a good, but not outstanding, story. I decided I just didn’t care enough to make myself read it just to say I had done so.

    And yes, we will be doing the Sci Fi Experience starting in December and linking it up with Andrea’s Vintage SF event in January. I love that Rinn is doing hers now too. Once it gets cold, and it is freezing here, I start craving the science fiction.

    • lynnsbooks

      Hah! I’m so glad to hear that I’m not alone. Tbh I did also feel like the gender stuff was gimmicky – a lot of people love it, I loved that I felt more free to concentrate on the book without other ‘issues’ sidetracking me but I didn’t get the need for the ‘she’ thing! You can write without the use of either really if you try!
      Excellent – so glad you’re doing your sci fi Exp – I was obviously just telling somebody else and then it occurred to me that with all your busy times you might not be planning to do so! Such a relief. I do love your events (no pressure there then at all :D)
      Lynn 😀

      • Carl V. Anderson

        I certainly feel like, at times, it would be nice to take a break. But I will be reading a bunch of science fiction over the next three months anyway, so it would be silly to not want to celebrate that with friends.

      • lynnsbooks

        Indeed – you can give hopeless readers like me some good ideas – still reading Ellie Quinn btw (which is one of your recs). About to start No.4 and really enjoying it.
        Lynn 😀

      • Carl V. Anderson

        I haven’t cracked into number 4, but it is on my list to get to soon. Wonder when the next one is due?

      • lynnsbooks

        I can’t seem to see anything about it! Maybe I’ll just slow down a little then!!! Give it time for No.5 to be on the horizon.
        Lynn 😀

  7. Two Dudes in an Attic

    You already know my opinions, so I won’t belabor them here. 🙂 I’m glad you gave it a shot, even if you (and apparently many other people in this neighborhood) didn’t like it as much. Ancillary Justice is definitely a polarizing book, partly because I think it requires a bit higher comfort level in SF than many people have. Not everyone is interested in the questions Leckie is asking – gender, colonialism, post-human identity – so there’s that too. In some ways, I’m surprised that it turned out as popular as it did, because it seems to me that the target audience is fairly narrow.

    • lynnsbooks

      I think you’re right – it’s definitely for more experienced sci fi readers than me! I did like the way the story was thought provoking but I just couldn’t really get on well with it.
      Lynn 😀

  8. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    This review totally resonated with me. I too struggled with this book until the very end. But while it’s not completely 100% for me, I can’t deny its merits and I am so happy for all the rewards and praise it got. I have the second book to read soon, something tells me I might enjoy it more, now that I’ve got a better grasp of the world and the character.

    • lynnsbooks

      I really appreciate the book for certain aspects but I just really struggled to read it for some reason – not that I wasn’t understanding what was taking place, just that it didn’t grab my attention and so I kept straying from it. It certainly has had lots of praise and it’s not hard to see why. And, I really enjoyed not having to think about the gender of the characters – it makes you focus on the story instead of wondering about other issues. Quite a breath of fresh air really – although I still maintain it would be better with both ‘he’ and ‘she’ dropped. It’s a good point and I can’t help thinking that now I’m familiar with the world I might enjoy the second one more – I might just sit on the fence – see how you feel about it first!
      Lynn 😀

  9. Be there or be E = mc2 | Lynn's Book Blog

    […] Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie […]

  10. Real Neat blog award | Books and travelling with Lynn

    […] this is tricksy too – *grr, shakes fist*.  I would have to say Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  This had such great reviews and virtually everybody I know loves it but it really […]

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