This review contains minor spoilers, though nothing that I think would ruin your enjoyment of this novel.
I have to admit, I was not originally impressed by Ancillary Justice. I read it piecemeal, which didn’t help: I got the vague impression of some large space operatic plot, with doppelgangers and space battles that ends, as all speculative fiction first novels must do these days, in the set-up for the sequel and thence the trilogy. But then it lingered and lingered, full of imagery and ideas, until I picked it back up: hence this slightly delayed review.
The protagonist of this novel – and heroine, though she would undoubtedly disdain the descriptor – is Breq, who is perhaps a woman who lives in what is undoubtedly a space opera world. Although she is not one of them, she is allied to the Radch – a galaxy-spanning civilisation whose raison d’etre is to conquer new worlds. They absorb new territories by means of officers on sentient ships, whose manpower is provided by officers, and “ancillaries” – the corpses of the dead, reanimated with the ship’s own consciousness. (So far, so kind of creepy.) Whether Breq is a woman is debatable for a number of reasons: she certainly refers to herself as “she”, but in the Radchaai linguistic universe, everyone is “she”. And even if it weren’t for that, Breq is an ancillary – the last one – for a ship that was once named Justice of Toren. She is the ship, all that is left of it. Whether the ship has gender, or humanity, is a question – but not a question Breq is interested in answering. She has a job to do. The novel is split between two different threads, one covering the story of what happened years ago to transform Justice of Toren into Breq, which in turn provides illumination for the “current” story, of what Breq’s mission is.
And that in itself would be interesting: a non-human sentience who is utterly uninterested in humanity. Breq is not Pinocchio or Commander Data: she is who she is. But then in the first pages of the novel, Breq, on the edge of completing her mission, spends time and money she doesn’t have on saving a drug-addicted former officer of hers named Seivarden, literally dragging her out of the snow. (Seivarden is, perhaps, male: the novel indicates she might be, but this is Breq’s story, so she remains she.) Why she does this, she does not understand – as she complains bitterly to herself, she didn’t even like Seivarden – and why she continues to look after Seivaarden, healing her, getting her clothes and food, seeing her through her addiction, remains a mystery to Breq. It shouldn’t remain too much of a mystery to the reader, not for long. In the past, when Breq belonged to Justice of Toren’s first rank of ancillaries, One Esk, she was attached to a human officer, Lieutenant Awn; in the past, One Esk was known for its love of music and singing. Breq has no interest in humanity, but humanity is changing her; Breq is not human, but to be a ship is not to be nothing. Breq, in her loyalty to Seivarden, inspires Seivarden’s loyalty to her. On the flipside, Breq’s quest is for revenge – a human desire with the single-mindedness of a ship’s intelligence. What Ancillary Justice is doing is telling us about the ways that exist, not even to be human, but to be a person. Justice of Toren was a multiple intelligence, divided between the many ancillaries and the ship; Breq is a ship’s intelligence in a single human body; Seivaarden is a washed-up former aristocrat re-learning to be who she is; long ago, Justice of Toren did something for Lieutenant Awn that it could not not do, and continue to be what it was. There is a beautiful, telling moment late in the novel, that underlines it all: Breq is addressed, for the first time in years, as “Justice of Toren”, and she cries: because she is not human, but who she is is still who she is, and was, and will be.
And many things have been said about gender in this novel – about how everyone from Breq’s point of view is marked female whether they are or not, about “he” as a default is tiresome non-SFF reality but how interesting it becomes that Breq’s default pronouns are always she, her, hers – but I would argue that it’s the same thing writ on a different canvas. How to be a person is also how to occupy space, how to occupy a body. Breq’s point of view gives us a universe where to be female, to be a woman, is the default state of being. All people occupy female bodies, no matter the shape and size of those bodies are. To occupy space itself is to be female. For Breq, that’s not a political act – let us not forget that Breq, as she was, was an imperialist on the vanguard of invasion; she had power beyond imagining – but for the SFF reader and writer, of course it is. Breq is a character archetype so often coded male in speculative fiction – the revenge-driven, stoic lone wolf – and for her to live in this female universe is a subversion and a celebration of the trope. It’s beautifully done.
Oh, and it’s beautifully done in general, of course: the ice-covered worlds, the great ravines, the green marshlands and ancient temples and the dead things singing children’s songs! All immaculately and crisply imagined. It becomes an action novel towards the end, which surprised me somewhat – in many ways, the style and worldbuilding reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s meandering novels of ideas – and I almost think that’s the weakest part of the novel, the action plot which is perfectly serviceable but perhaps contributed to my initial impression that the novel was nothing special, because the ideas were obscured by keeping track of everything that happens and who everyone is (and in a world where people can be more than one person, this is more complex than it sounds). But despite that, I hope very much that the novel wins the Best Novel Hugo, because I want more stories like this: kind and mind-expanding, all at once, with diversity of identity built into the stuff of them.
[My review copy of this novel was provided by Jenni Hill from Orbit – thank you kindly!]