First of all, if you like science fiction at all, this is THE BOOK you should be reading right now. Just stop what you’re doing and go buy it, or reserve it at the library. It’s important you get in on this now before everybody loves it and then the inevitable contrarians pop up to tell everyone how much they dislike it and how everyone who likes it is probably dumb and/or reading it wrong and really it means THIS and HOW DARE YOU. And if you are one of those contrarians, then it’s early enough that you can pretend that you discovered it and don’t have to feel ashamed for doing something everybody else is doing. And when everybody else starts doing it, you can gloat real loud about how you found it first. It’s a win/win for you. I give you this advice free of charge, even though your behavior makes me want to pull out all of my hairs one by one and then feed them to you while you’re tied to a chair. Or something.
Ancillary Justice is the first book in Leckie’s Imperial Radch* series, and the author’s first book, the second of which (Ancillary Sword) will be published in October. This is sort of mind-blowing, because it is really good and really polished and it’s already won two major sci-fi awards, but then: I’m not sure there’s any universe in which a book that is about what this book is about doesn’t get noticed.
*Confession: every time I see ‘Imperial Radch’ I think ‘Imperial Radish’ and I LAUGH SO HARD.
So I almost don’t want to tell you what this book is about, but I think I have to because: a) If you don’t have at least SOME of the facts going in, you’re going to be confused and probably want to give up; and b) I feel like if I tell you a little about it (just enough to pique your interest), you’re going to be like WHAT and then do what I say.
So, just going to throw it right out there: The narrator/protagonist of this book is a 2,000 year old artificial intelligence that used to be a ship and have thousands of human bodies (ancilliaries) as extensions of itself, but who is now stuck in the body of a single human. And she wants revenge. I’m deliberately using the word ‘she’ here, even though the narrator’s gender is never specified, because I want you to get used to it. The narrator’s native language is one where linguistically there is no distinction between genders, and the world they use to refer to she/he translates always as ‘she’. It’s sort of a mindfuck. It was also very revealing of my ingrained social behaviors, as I found myself against my will NEEDING to know whether a character was male or female, and never getting an answer. We are specifically told the genders of several characters, but Breq (the narrator) keeps referring to them as she anyway, so the end product for me at least was a fictional world almost entirely populated by women. You might/will probably have a different reaction.
As for the story itself, it alternates by chapter between Breq’s present (as her mission of revenge nears completion) and her past, where we learn about her previous life as a ship, the culture she comes from (the Radch, an empire ruled over by an immortal emperor who has split HERSELF into multiple bodies so as to live forever) and how she came to lose everything.
As a warning, even with all this knowledge going in, you will be confused. Just ride through it. I promise: all is revealed, and it is supremely satisfying. Just push past the confusion, try to figure things out when appropriate, and wait for the clarity to come. You shall be rewarded. Plus: come on. Admit it. Sometimes it’s nice to be challenged by the books you read. Keeps the old brain pan working hard.