[Read as an audiobook from the public library]
Well, we’re straight out of Murderbot and right into some of the most serious big person pants sci-fi I’ve read since I started reading Leviathan Wakes about a hundred years ago. Bite-sized fun time space western this is not. It was some work, and it took some time, but the rewards are definitely ample.
Ancillary Justice is on its face a sprawling space opera spanning a thousand years, with weird names and strange planets and ridiculously nuanced cultural practices and slippery linguistics and the whole thing feels like it’s moving at a snail’s pace sometimes. But — and I can only think this opinion was helped along by the impeccable narration by Adjoa Andoh, more on that in a bit — underneath all that “alien-ness” is a story that is so recognizable that you could just about use it in some history classes.
To very quickly summarize a pretty long and complicated book, the Radch empire has been expanding and colonizing other planets for, well, basically ever as far as anyone’s concerned. This expansion lines the empire’s coffers and creates more citizens, which then provokes the need for more expansion, to protect and pay for the newly colonized territories. If this sounds familiar, that’s because you learned about Rome at some point (and plenty of other colonial empires, but Rome certainly perfected this model). A thousand years before the story’s current events, an annexation went disastrously, violently wrong — so violently wrong that even some of the relatively complacent Radchaai were disturbed by what happened. Twenty years before the story’s current events, another annexation went horribly wrong and swept our main character, Breq, into it. Because of what happened 20 years ago, Breq is now determined to try to set some things right and atone for the mistakes she made. That’s basically the bare bones of the story, but too much more would dance into spoiler territory.
This book, like I said, can be enjoyed on its own terms as a space opera. But as read by Adjoa Andoh, it becomes even more obvious than it might otherwise how very clearly this is a story of colonial conquest. How imperial powers make “citizens.” How they enslave some, kill others, and “civilize” the rest. How they work within and around local caste systems in order to gain loyalties, sow discord, create allies. Andoh does this with the deftest touches — the accents she uses for the Orsians, lower class citizens of the annexed planet of Shis’urna, are subtly but recognizably African (I wouldn’t presume to guess which country, as my ear isn’t trained in those accents). The accent she chooses for the higher-status Tanmind of the same planet — people who look down on the majority Orsians as little better than animals — is Afrikaans. These choices make the subtext even more clear, and make the story of this annexation, and all Radch annexations before them, more familiar.
Ancillary Justice is also deeply concerned with class. You can’t write a book about colonialism and not address issues of class, but even apart from its endless expansion, Radch society is consumed with patronage and breeding and status. Again, Adjoa Andoh so subtly and cleverly brings these ideas to the fore, with her accent choices. Lieutenant Awn, an officer involved in the annexation of Shis’urna — a good person, a capable solider — is from the “lower classes” of Radch society and is never able to forget it no matter where she turns. Andoh gives her a Yorkshire accent — not overly broad, not comically rural, but she clearly is not from the Home Counties. Even to an American with the most cursory knowledge of English accents, Awn’s accent sounds different and somehow not as proper as those of her comrades, who come from better families and have more nasal, upper class accents. It again becomes obvious upon hearing that Awn is an outlier. No wonder the others sneer at her so. No wonder she prefers the company of the Orsians over the Tanminds. She got where she is by talent instead of patronage, and in Radch society that is not a mark in your favor.
What really won me over about this story is that at its core, it’s about how tremendously damaging and ultimately poisonous the fruits of colonialism are. Imperialism ends in division and destruction, and the sacrifices demanded to continue down that path mount to the point of literal insanity. And that you cannot run from the consequences of your actions forever, no matter how ingenious your methods of hiding. Blood will out, in the end. Justice eventually comes. It’s as human a story as I can imagine, really.
So. I really liked this book. It is not for everyone — it is quite long and complex, and if you keep setting it down and picking it back up you’re going to be confused more than not. This isn’t a breezy read. It’s not a chore either, but this is a solid piece that makes you work for the payoff. I am a real big nerd about British history and I know a fair amount about Western Europe’s fuckery in Africa, so that back catalogue was playing in my mind while listening to this and I found that useful. If you have similar knowledge bases, you might also enjoy this.
If you have access to and are able to listen to the audiobook, I cannot recommend it enough. There is apparently also a version read by Celeste Ciulla for Recorded Books that was the original American release. I have no opinion on it because I haven’t heard it, but the one read by Adjoa Andoh is so incredibly perfect (I could sing praises about her accent work for days) that you just cannot go wrong with it.