One of my favorite books of 2014 was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It’s a sci-fi novel that won pretty much every prize awarded for that genre and features one of the coolest protagonists I’ve ever encountered in literature: Breq, an “ancillary” or corpse soldier who has been untethered from the collective consciousness of her ship but retains amazing physical and cognitive powers. As one character states in book 2, “[Breq] is pretty fucking badass.”
In book 1, Breq was on a mission to reach the supreme ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai; in doing so, we learn how it was that Breq became disconnected from her ship and the potential for civil and interstellar war. As noted in my previous review, this sci-fi novel is also a political thriller, and in book 2, Leckie continues the intrigue.
As a result of her actions in book 1, Breq has been made a Fleet Commander by Anaander Mianaai and has also been given the surname Mianaai; this lets all who meet her know that she is a person of great prestige and status. The world of the Imperial Radch is one ruled by client/patron relationships; one’s family connections often outweigh ability in securing positions and promotions. Anaander sends Breq and her crew aboard the ship Mercy of Kalr to the Athoek Station, which is remote and still unaware of the political unrest that has begun to spread throughout the empire. Breq’s crew includes the medic and Lt. Seivarden, who had a prominent role in book 1, as well as a 17-year-old “baby lieutenant” named Tisarwat. Breq is unhappy about Tisarwat’s participation in her mission and for good reason, which I shall not reveal here.
The overall plot for this trilogy of books has to do with the dangers absolute power and of an empire (and emperor) divided. It is not clear that there is a right and wrong side, as Breq is well aware. On one side are forces committed to continued expansion, a strong military and use of ancillaries, who are taken from conquered populations. On the other side are those who think expansion has reached its limits and that use of ancillaries must be stopped. Both sides’ allegiance is to an omnipotent ruler who has lived for thousands of years. At Athoek Station, Breq has to determine where the loyalties of its governor, ruling families and military lie and try to prevent unrest from spreading there. But while she and her crew are there, she uncovers some irregularities in the treatment of annexed peoples, and we learn more about the unusual parent/child relationships in the Radch empire.
Themes that run throughout this novel are the fact that we are not always the people we think we are, that under duress we might make decisions we swore we would never make; and that people are capable of incredible self-deception. On Athoek, one of the wealthiest and most influential citizens is Fosyf, the owner of a large and prestigious tea plantation. Her daughter Raughd is a selfish and abusive young woman who enjoys manipulating others for her own gratification. The annexed people who work the plantations on Athoek are the Valskaayans, who live in poverty and ignorance, unable to work their way upward as other annexed peoples usually do. A woman named Sirix, who was punished for trying to help the Valskaayans strike 20 years ago, tells Breq, They’re ignorant, superstitious savages, every one of them. But even so. It’s not right. Civil unrest is in the air even in the station itself. A section of the station known as the Undergarden is a sort of underground, a place where people live without the station being able to monitor them; all manner of illegal activity can occur there, but the residents also must deal with a lack of security, medical care and basic utilities. The situation on Athoek is a ticking time bomb with the wealthy “haves” manipulating the system to their advantage while the majority have-nots seethe. The inevitable explosion is well designed and the resolution leaves issues that must be addressed in book three. I can hardly wait to read it!
While crafting this complex plot and creating an empire that is both familiar (if you paid attention in history) and new, Leckie also gives us a most unusual hero. Breq fascinates me. Even though she is not “human” any more (and only a couple of people know that she is an ancillary), she does what she can to please her crew and occasionally longs for the collective being she once was. Breq does not need the personal relationships that her crew do (and because she has the ability to see all that the ship’s computer and surveillance see, Breq knows when they are hooking up), but when she was a ship herself, she felt a loyalty and great desire to serve and please her lieutenant. She misses Lt. Awn, the woman she served in book 1 and whose sister lives at Athoek station, but she can never go back to being the ship again. Breq seems to exercise better judgment and have more of a conscience than other people. She makes it clear that she will not order soldiers to fire on citizens and will not tolerate those who do. And she delivers this brilliant speech to the Governor:
When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?
What indeed! That’s a question we should be asking ourselves: how bad does it have to get (race relations, misogyny, gun control, etc.) before we do something?
Both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword are enormously entertaining and I highly recommend them whether you go for sci-fi or not.