On a visit to London last year, I stopped by Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road a few times, and on one of those visits, I picked up three space opera books: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley, and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. The cashier’s face lit up when he saw my choices, saying that he’d read and loved all of them, especially Ancillary Justice. I’m not sure why it’s the last of the three that I’m getting to, but I’m sorry to say that it’s my least favorite.
The book follows Breq, a resourceful and wealthy soldier, as she crosses a distant icy planet on a quest for revenge. But we soon learn Breq isn’t who she claims to be: a visitor from a remote galaxy. Instead, she’s an ancillary — a human drone controlled by a ship’s AI — and all that remains of the warship and troop carrier Justice of Toren. Twenty years earlier, she was involved in an incident on a planet recently annexed and assimilated by the Radch, a rigid society of humans ruled by Anaander Mianaai, a being that inhabited thousands of bodies throughout her territory, making her essentially immortal and impossible to assassinate. Through flashbacks, Breq relives and grieves the catastrophic incident that led to her near-total destruction and the loss of most of her crew, while in the present she searches for a mythical weapon that provides her only hope for avenging her own death.
This was another book that came with high expectations, having won the Hugo Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Nebula Award and on and on and on. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me. It was really frustrating, too, because I liked the main character, and I liked the idea of the story, but the telling is what let it down. Slow and clunky, the two narratives didn’t flow together very well, and it was unnecessarily bloated with elements that didn’t add to the story: the endless details of etiquette, the stumbling over gender, the major character that had a lot of screentime was nothing but a red herring and plot enabler. Maybe with better exposition, those extra elements could have added to the story. Instead, I felt like I could see the wizard behind the curtain, pulling the strings.
I’m getting a little tired of these books in series that can’t stand on their own, and this one really suffered from that problem. There were flashes of greatness. A lot of it really did remind me of Iain M. Banks, my personal touchstone for space opera. Once I got to the chapter where the two narratives came together and we learned what happened to Justice of Toren, I had the feeling it had all been a long slow burn, and I even wrote in my notes that “this was where the book burst into flames”. It was incredibly powerful. From there, I thought the book was really going to take off, but instead, it lost all that great momentum and slumped to a ham-fisted, tortured ending that felt like something out of a weekly TV procedural. I can overlook a lot of flaws, but a bad ending is unforgivable.