“Why is this novel such a big deal?” I wondered as I saw Worlds Without End’s listing of award nominees. As of this posting, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has been nominated for the 2013 Nebula, 2013 PKD, 2014 Clarke, and 2014 Hugo awards and is the winner of the 2013 BSFA. I was more than a little curious. What I found is a novel with a fresh spin on the Space Opera genre. It is masterfully written and does an expert job of world building.
Ancillary Justice is written in the “first person.” Trying to explain that “first person” is not so easy and helps clarify why this novel is so refreshing. The narrator is an “ancillary.” In the world of Ancillary Justice, space ships are artificial intelligences. The physical part of an AI is composed not only of the ship, but also of the ancillaries virtually connected to it. Think of a traffic monitoring system with all the various cameras and monitors connected to it. But in this case the AI is connected to the bodies of what used to be living people, often those conquered by the Radch. The AI can not only receive information through each ancillary, but it can also act through each one; they are an extension of it. In some ways the relationship is also holographic, because each ancillary contains the memories and information of the whole AI. The narrator is both an ancillary known as “One Esk” and what remains of Justice of Toren, a ship that was destroyed. The narrator also calls itself “Breq.”
In some ways Ancillary Justice is a traditional space opera because of the scope the storyline. It covers over a thousand years. It describes an empire, the Radch, whose chief concern is expansion, “annexing” civilizations. The ruler herself has lived thousands of years and at one time can have over a thousand different bodies.
Yet unlike most space operas, Ancillary Justice has a very personal story, partially because of the narrator. Breq is not some cold AI, but an individual who likes to sing and repeatedly demonstrates compassion. In the beginning of the novel, we learn that Breq’s goal is to seek revenge for the death of her favorite human, Lieutenant Awn. Much of the early part of the novel involves revealing the circumstances around Awn’s death. To complication matters, Breq discovers and takes care of Seivarden, who as a young lieutenant served on Justice of Toren. She is described as “not one of one of my favorites.” The once arrogant officer from a respected family was in suspended animation in an escape pod for almost a thousand years and is now an addict. Seivarden is both a hindrance and a sidekick as Breq goes about fulfilling her revenge.
Ancillary Justice is touching at moments, interesting most of the time, and even horrifying in a few spots. It takes some of the best qualities of a space opera and combines them with the character development that I associate with a novel that has a less grandiose setting. It works; I loved the book. The biggest flaw that I noticed in the novel is that Seivarden at times, especially near the end of the story, seems a bit of a caricature. All in all, I definitely think that Ancillary Justice is award worthy.