Ancillary Justice is one of those books to come out of nowhere a few years ago and suddenly appear on all sort of “read this!” lists… including getting shortlisted for several major awards. It went on to win a Hugo, a Nebula and the Arthur C. Clarke award, among others. For a debut novel, that’s impressive. And you know what? It’s a very impressive book.
The book is set in a far-future universe with some slight Iain M. Banks overtones, but where Banks’ universe is tilted towards the utopian, here things fall somewhat in the other direction. The protagonist, Breq, is a citizen of the vast and imperialist Radch empire, which conquers and exploits worlds with brutal force. Those that submit quickly enough are allowed to exist as vassals of the empire, those that do not are eradicated. Under the absolute rule of Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, vast armadas enforce the rule of empire. Braq “herself” is unusual since she isn’t human, she’s the surviving fragment of an AI which used to be the starship Justice of Toren, destroyed nineteen years ago due to treachery. Nobody knows that Breq survived, downloaded into an “ancillary” (a mind-wiped body from a conquered planet), and she intends to keep it that way while she plans her revenge.
There are two storylines intertwined here. One has the “current-day” Breq, in her ancillary body, journey back to the heart of Empire. In the other, we see events nineteen years in the past when Breq was still the Justice of Toren, and slowly learn what led to the destruction of that ship. It’s an unusual tale, told via an unusual protagonist. It’s also refreshing in that here everything is viewed through the eyes of a huge, conquering empire, instead of some rebellion against it. The Radchaai conquer because that’s what they’ve always done, it’s the proper way of things. Even Breq, rogue that she is, doesn’t really question this (though she slowly starts to question other assumptions).
Also noteworthy is the novel’s treatment of gender in general. There’s a nice trick in there, which I won’t spoil in advance. Read it yourself.