On a frozen world far outside of civilised space, Breq is distracted from her self-appointed mission of vengeance by a face from her distant past. Seivarden was the sole survivor of an assassination attempt on the Lord of the Radch a thousand years ago, a period in Breq’s past which becomes more and more relevant as the narrative weaves on.
Breq is the last remnant of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, lost to all parts of herself and cast adrift two decades previously. She is not mad, although she was for a time, stuck in one body with only one set of senses to draw on where before she was the ship and the thousands of ancillaries she controlled. She struggles constantly to disguise her nature and her past from those around her, allies and enemies alike, while she unravels her recent and distant pasts and begins to understand the nature of her true enemy.
This book is incredible. The narrative is gently paced and portentous at first, as the world is slowly built up around Breq, but it accelerates constantly and by the end of it I resented every interruption and really had to force myself back into the real world. The characters are wonderful, redolent with flaws and strengths and dreams broken against the terrible machinations of a nearly-unimaginable enemy. The various different cultures examined in the book are all believable and unique – no simple space America, space USSR, space inscrutable Orientals here.
The blurb talks about how if you loved Iain M Banks’ Culture novels you’ll love this, and there are definitely similarities in the scope and ambition of the galaxy-building, as well as the transhuman and AI elements. But for me, Leckie felt much more like a true inheritor of Ursula K LeGuin, with her intricacies and slow burn and above all, her superb investigation into the nature of gender in society. If you are even the slightest bit interested in the way gender and sex interact with language and thinking, you need to read this book.
If you prefer rollicking space opera, this is going to be a harder read for you. (QQ, puppies, QQ.) But it’s still the best Mil-SF I’ve read since Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall series, and it does Leckie a massive disservice to overlook how good the action sequences are, how well she uses physics, and how much care she has taken to make it all visualisable and believable.
5 stars: and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.