Well, I’m a week late on account of a false start and a full schedule, but I’ve finally gotten to my second review. This time I read Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice,” and I must admit I’m happy I did. First, a warning, if you don’t like actually having to use your gray matter while reading a book, stay away. Stay far, far away. For everyone else, pick up a copy of the book!
Now, on to the actual review:
It came to me, as I was reading near the end of this book, that consuming it could be likened to sipping an excellent glass of extremely potent whiskey. Extremely enjoyable, but observe caution how much you absorb in a single sitting, lest you find yourself in need of Tylenol to ease the mental strain.
This both is and isn’t the fault of the author. There is no technical issue, no disjointed or confusing bits that will really puzzle you. In point of fact, I’m more than a little bit in awe of Ann Leckie, as she somehow managed what she did so smoothly that the reader is never lost or confused…even when they really really really ought to be.
What did she manage that makes me say that? Three things, two of which set the book entirely apart from anything I’ve ever read. The first, and most subtle of the three, was the way she treated gender. I reached the end of the book still unsure what gender half the main cast were, without even once feeling as if the lack of understanding had lessened the story in any significant way. In part, this was managed with a careful structuring of the setting, but mostly it was on account of the (likely extreme) labor of the author to carefully construct and frame every sentence and character so as to leave this up-in-the-air without being confusing. The issue is often lampshaded, addressed directly by the main characters, and that fact in-and-of-itself often sells it as natural feeling, rather than coming across as a product of the author trying to be clever.
The second thing, and probably the most utterly unique and critical, was the nature of the main character. While it is, perhaps, a minor spoiler (so if that freaks you out skip a bit), the main character is an A.I. (sort of) and as such there are frequent moments where Breq’s internal monologue or memories actually show a half dozen simultaneous perspectives in a single 3-4 sentence paragraph. Which sounds confusing as hell. Which, by all rights, should be confusing as hell. Yet, by some miraculous voodoo (read: probably countless hours of hard work), it isn’t. While it will cause some head-trip moments if you stop and think about it too hard, and is the primary cause of my whiskey comparison, the effect somehow isn’t confusing at all. Instead, it drives the story and plot, and ultimately makes for one of the most amazing pieces of Sci-fi I’ve ever read.
The third thing, the bit that isn’t overly unique, is that effectively every-other-chapter is a flashback. The entire book is structured so that you get a dose of what-is-happening-now, than a chapter of the component pieces that led to this unlikely person being in an unlikely place, doing an unlikely series of things. It is, I admit, slightly jarring at first, but the overall effect it well handled and helps spread out the explanations and exposition nicely.
Ultimately, this book offers a good setting, utterly fascinating perspectives, and an author whose command of language has few equals. That it also has a very unusual plot, a clever way of revealing that plot in pieces, and fairly deep/likable characters just makes it all the harder to put down. As always, however, there are still rough points.
First and foremost for me personally, though possibly not for people with a less wild imagination, is that issue of gender confusion. While it didn’t really detract from the plot, it didn’t help it either. I found myself frustratingly unable to create a mental picture of each character, or creating mental pictures that I knew were the wrong gender but wouldn’t go away due to pervasive use of the wrong gender tags for the character(s) in question. While not, strictly speaking, a huge problem, I honestly think Miss Leckie did herself a disservice by not making it a bit clearer a bit more often. The lack of an easy mental picture, particularly when all the other bits of the environment were well-described and easy to imagine, made it much harder to bring the characters to life. She managed it anyway, but I can’t help but feel as if she could have done it much easier, and made each character much more vibrant, if she hadn’t handcuffed herself this way.
The only other major point against the book I have is those flashback chapters. I actually don’t have an issue with them existing, they were handled amazingly well! However, I do have a bit of an issue with their frequency. Purely from a readability standpoint. It took me much longer to get through the book than normal, since the chapters were long and often had break points right when I was getting into the current perspective of the story. This effectively created cliffhangers, where I really wanted to know what would happen, but was forced to readjust my mental track and follow something else instead. This meant that I was really only willing to read the book when I was sure I had several hours to read in, unwilling to risk being caught out by the cliffhangers. While this didn’t overly impact my enjoyment of the book itself, it did frustrate my attempts to finish it.
Final Rating Breakdown:
Score Adjustment for Misc problems:
Final Score: 9/10
Personal Recommendation: If you like space-opera settings at all, even as little as “once in a rare blue moon,” I strongly encourage you to pick this one up. If you don’t like space-opera settings at all, pick it up anyway. Seriously, it might just change your mind on the sub-genre.