I always make the same mistake with Ann Leckie. I think it’s going to be serious, intellectual science fiction, and it always ends up being a story I can’t put down. When I get to the review writing part, all I seem to be able to write about are the serious intellectual themes, so let me take this time to say that I had a hard time putting this down to do things like earn money and sleep.
Early in the book, Reet Hluid’s mother reminds him that he doesn’t have to be what others want him to be. That is the crux for our three main characters, Reet (he/him), Enae (sie/hir), and Qven, a Presger translator for whom gender is meaningless. I loved these weird baby characters and wanted to swaddle them against the rising political tensions.
There is a thing that happens before you get to the halfway mark that in another book would have been a shocking twist. It’s a big enough thing that I won’t spoil it, but when it happens you will have seen it coming chapters earlier. More important than the plot twist is the implications of the twist. While the thing does set off a chain of events, it questions the distinction between human and alien. There is tension between who a person chooses to be and how they are shaped by the family/culture/political entity around them.
In the Imperial Radch series, there are no ethical empires. Empires are a pyramid scheme and require a constant source of populations to other and oppress. The previously conquered become the instruments of oppression as they assimilate and feel like they are moving up the pyramid (they are never moving up the pyramid). Empires also require efficiency, which means individuals must be easily categorized. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that all Radch citizens are she because it is more efficient to flatten everyone into one pronoun.
Translation State continues this exploration, but outside the Radchaai. Governments hate mess because it’s easier to govern the predictable (even if the predictable is occasional bouts of political violence). The human systems outside the Imperial Radch don’t want the empire to be able to impose it’s narrow definition of human on them, but they are happy to decide some groups of humans have fewer rights than other as is convenient. The alien Presger want to keep their cultivated human Translators in a narrow role and do this by restricting information and thus choice.
I’m leaving out so many things I want to talk about! Translation State is a 9 course meal and I’m just telling you about some of the ingredients. Leckie has a way with making pointed social commentary while also being funny. The way Qven is raised to be human through a Presger lens sounds absurd until you realize how closely Qven’s scripted interactions sound like conversations we have all the time.
CW: police brutality, physical attack, arrest and confinement, torture (not graphic), political violence, emotional abuse.
I received this as an advance reader copy from Orbit books and NetGalley. My opinions are my own, freely and honestly given.