Series: Imperial Radch #2
Published by Orbit on October 7, 2014
Genres: adult, science fiction
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What if you once had thousands of bodies and near god-like technology at your disposal?
And what if all of it were ripped away?
The Lord of the Radch has given Breq command of the ship Mercy of Kalr and sent her to the only place she would have agreed to go -- to Athoek Station, where Lieutenant Awn's sister works in Horticulture.
Athoek was annexed some six hundred years ago, and by now everyone is fully civilized -- or should be. But everything is not as tranquil as it appears. Old divisions are still troublesome, Athoek Station's AI is unhappy with the situation, and it looks like the alien Presger might have taken an interest in what's going on. With no guarantees that interest is benevolent.
Breq is a spaceship. Or, rather, she used to be. Once the AI consciousness of the ship known as Justice of Toren, Breq is now contained in a single ancillary (the how and why of which is detailed in Ancillary Justice). Perhaps some more explanation? An ancillary is a human body (most often a civilian casualty) with a ship’s consciousness and some rather tricked out implants that make them super soldiers. Ancillaries are an extension of the ship and see and know everything the ship does. Ships have many ancillaries and they are all collectively the same entity. When a human becomes an ancillary the person they were is dead forever. Through such means the Radchaai Empire has been able to conquer and colonize much of humanity. Okay, that’s as simple a primer I can do without giving too much away!
Man, I just love this series. Finally, finally! Here is the far future science fiction story I have been searching for. The humans are not white and definitions of gender have moved beyond the binary. I mean, are we not supposed to be pushing the limits of our imaginations in science fiction?! I would be severely disappointed if we still had 21st century notions of gender tens of thousands of years from now. But I digress. Despite its many flaws, in Radchaai society gender is irrelevant. Their language has no distinction in gendered pronouns or titles.
In fact, everyone is referred to as “she” as the standard neutral pronoun. Breq herself, as an AI consciousness, is agender (yet nevertheless referred to as “she”). This is both to avoid the confusion of “they” when reading a book about a spaceship with multiple bodies and also a bit to subvert the usual masculine default. We don’t know the actual genders of the vast majority of characters so it is up to the reader to fill in those details if they so wish. I find this absolutely fascinating.
This second installment felt markedly different from the first book. Unlike in Ancillary Justice, this volume serves up a linear narrative. Breq, now captain of a ship and crew (humans, not ancillaries) of her own, heads to the remote Athoek Station to tie up some unresolved business. What follows is a fairly straight forward plot examining the (non)ethics of slave labor and political corruption in an empire starting to fall apart at the seams. Often standard science fiction fare.
But what sets this novel apart is how interestingly Leckie crafts her characters and her world. Breq may not be human but she is a deeply decent person. And let’s face it, getting to be inside the head of a ship consciousness is pretty awesome. There is an incredible well of emotion that is not always readily apparent but there nonetheless, and all the more rewarding for when it does show. I’m such a sucker for these strong, stoic badasses.
As an ancillary, Breq has implants that allow her to see what Mercy of Kalr sees and to sense the emotions of her crew. The result is a near omniscient first person perspective that is written with magnificent aplomb. Breq’s attention often moves from a conversation she’s having to, for instance, a conversation going on elsewhere that Ship wants her to see. This often changes from paragraph to paragraph but is rarely confusing. Leckie is a tremendously capable writer.
And there is so much world to explore. If you’re the reading type who loves that feeling of falling into another world and becoming enveloped by it these books are for you. There are so many details I have to keep myself from going into if I don’t want this to become a 2,000 word review. And they’re all so fascinating! So many societal conventions. Radchaai always wear gloves. It is the height of uncleanliness and impropriety not to do so. Tea is the cornerstone of civilization. “Radch” itself means “civilization.” To be Radchaai means to be civilized. Oh, this is a conquering galactic empire calling themselves the “civilized.” Yeah, you see where this is going. But trust me on the worldbuilding. It’s a dream.
The one thing I very much missed, though, were the interactions between Breq and Seivarden, her fighting companion and ally from the first book, who is left behind on Ship while Breq goes to Athoek.
“But Ships do love people. I mean, particular people.” For some reason saying that made her [Seivarden] nervous, triggered a tiny spike of apprehension in her.
Because she wants to be your particular person, you silly! Ugh, these two. Also, I am apparently the only person who actually wants there to be some sort of romantic thing between Breq and Seivarden because of course I do. But even if nothing ever happens I adore their strong friendship and the certain kind of love that they do have for each other.
And I am so fascinated by the creeping horror of the concept of the ancillaries. Sure, the person is dead and it’s now an expendable replaceable body. Ship won’t be hurt if an ancillary body dies. A new body will be taken from the stores and activated. But ancillary bodies still have human reactions and the ships certainly do form attachments. Here’s a passage after an ancillary sees her captain is seriously injured:
Its voice and its face were of course expressionless, but tears welled in its eyes, whether from pain or from something else it was impossible for me to know. I could guess, though.
It’s so creepy and haunting and fascinatingly sad on several levels and I love that this series isn’t afraid to look that horror straight in the eye.
Recommended for anyone who likes superbly crafted worlds, deftly complex characters, political machinations, badass space fights, a heaping helping of “made me think,” and a pinch of a the delightfully weird.
Translator Dlique was saying, very earnestly, “Eggs are so inadequate, don’t you think? I mean, they ought to be able to become anything, but instead you always get a chicken. Or a duck. Or whatever they’re programmed to be. You never get anything interesting, like regret, or the middle of the night last week.”
Indeed, Translator Dlique. Indeed.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.