Breq is unique but she wasn’t always. Once Breq was a spaceship, Justice of Toren, comprising thousands of corpse soldiers, each with a shared identity, one of many such vessels spreading the influence of the Imperial Radch around the Galaxy. Breq is now alone, her vessel destroyed, and she has only one goal – to take vengeance on Anaander Mianaai, the lord of the Radch, who exists in an almost infinite number of forms. Breq is also our narrator and it is through these strange eyes, this unusual perspective, that we witness the events that brought Breq to her single-minded purpose.
Ancillary Justice is an unusual novel, reflecting the nature of its narrator. Breq has lived in one form or another for thousands of years but in many ways she is socially naive. This expresses itself in her language. She can communicate with most races but not necessarily correctly. She doesn’t readily know gender pronouns; everyone is ‘she’ unless Breq is corrected. This has the rather peculiar result that we are not sure whether we are being introduced to men or women and, as we work this out, there are surprises. However, for me, this reinforced how little gender can matter when a story’s narrator has far more basic identity problems to solve. While this use of the ‘she’ pronoun has been an issue for some readers, it mattered little to me and I enjoyed the rare excuses for humour that it provided to the novel.
The novel opens on an icy planet with a moment of inexplicable mercy by Breq. She finds Seivarden lying in the snow, close to death. Seivarden had once been one of Breq’s human crew members, many hundreds of years before, and there is no reason for her to be there, let alone still alive. Despite having no feelings of warmth for Seivarden, Breq picks her up and together they continue Breq’s hunt for vengeance. The story then moves back and forth over a 19-year period, the years that saw Justice of Toren destroyed and the Radch divided.
Above all else, Ancillary Justice is a novel about identity and justice, set against the background of the Radch which conquers worlds by ‘annexation’, a sanitised word for an inhuman process that leaves most people dead or emptied of life, becoming these corpse soldiers who police the empire. We witness the process of annexation on one planet through Breq’s prejudiced understanding – there are acts of terror – but Breq is in the process of becoming one and with that comes other emotions, including loyalty, affection, heroism, selflessness. Not that Breq would necessarily recognise these qualities in herself. But it isn’t just Breq who changes – Seivarden, too, alters over the novel and her journey is, for me, the most memorable and warming aspect of the novel. There are also events that strike out of the blue, shocking the reader as well as Breq.
There has been a lot of excitement about Ancillary Justice and so I was very keen to read it. It is undoubtedly an ambitious and original debut SF novel by Anne Leckie. It is also, I believe, the start of a new Imperial Radch series, although it stands alone very well. I liked the characters a great deal, I felt for them in this cruel world they had become part of and I was very intrigued by Anaander Mianaai – a split personality taken to extremes. However, the pace and story left me disengaged. Its sudden movements backwards and forwards disconnected me from events and at times I found it hard going. I was glad I persevered as I enjoyed the second half much more than the first but the style is not one to suit every reader, including this one.