This, however, might be a roundabout way of answering the question: to put it very simply, Ancillary Justice is fun. It's a clever, well-written space opera/adventure with an interesting world, memorable characters, and a plot that is quite literally ripped from the classics (more about that in a minute). And, perhaps most importantly, it manages to be all these things in barely 400 pages of clear, plain-spoken prose. Unlike other juggernaut award winners of previous years, Ancillary Justice doesn't do a great deal that is new or different (and the things that are new or different about it, such as the games it plays with gender, feel, well, ancillary to the thrust of its story). But pretty much everything that it does is done well, and as well as a hefty course of fun, the novel offers significant nutritional value in the form of its well-drawn, thought-provoking setting. That in itself feels revolutionary--I can't recall the last time that a meat-and-potatoes space opera was simultaneously a quick, effortless read, and a clever discussion of matters of gender, personhood, and politics. (Not to beat a dead horse, but having finally read Ancillary Justice really brings home how bewildering it is that this is the novel that the Sad and Rabid Puppies latched onto as an example of how SF is becoming elitist, literary, and disconnected from its pulpy roots. How anyone who has actually read the book could see it as anything but precisely that sort of SF that the Puppies claimed to want to reclaim the Hugos for is completely beyond me, but then it's possible that I've answered that question simply by asking it.)
That Ancillary Justice is as much fun as it is feels all the more remarkable when you consider that it is, essentially, a book-long infodump. The action of the novel begins with protagonist Breq embarking on the very last step of a twenty-year-long quest for revenge. We get hints throughout the novel of hardships that Breq has endured, and the adventures she's had, on her path to this point in her story, and I suspect that the next two novels in the trilogy will touch on those events (or perhaps Leckie will write a companion novel revealing that backstory). But in Ancillary Justice itself, what Breq needs to accomplish is rather anticlimactic--she has to convince someone to give her a weapon that can get past the security measures guarding Anaander Mianaai, leader of the Imperial Radch, the space empire around which this series revolves. This is accomplished with relatively little argument, and the most complicated thing that happens in this strand of the story is that Breq encounters Seivarden, a Radchaai officer she once knew, and saves her life despite previously having an acrimonious relationship, which leads to the two of them developing a friendship. The purpose of most of the action of Ancillary Justice is to serve as a delivery method for Breq's reminiscences of the events twenty years ago that led to her quest for vengeance, and the purpose of those flashback scenes is to illustrate--sometimes through nothing more complicated than a bald recital of facts--the nature of the Radchaai empire, an expansionist, xenophobic society that stresses conformity and obedience above all other virtues.
Breq was once the Justice of Toren, a Radchaai troop carrier whose AI could manifest itself through "ancillaries"--the bodies of captured enemies who have been mindwiped and made to act as Radchaai troops. The custom of creating ancillaries is one of the reasons why the Radch is feared and despised by the civilizations it seeks to "annex," and at the time of the twenty-years-ago flashbacks, it is falling out of favor. Nevertheless, it is one of the many difficulties that need to be smoothed over by Lieutenant Awn, the officer whom Breq (the ancillary who will one day become Breq, that is) accompanies to the newly-annexed planet Shis'urna to act as the head of the local garrison and Radch representative. When Awn discovers a plot to inflame tensions between the planet's ethnic groups that seems to come from within the supposedly impartial Radch, she lands herself in the middle of a conspiracy that leaves her dead and Justice of Toren destroyed along with its entire crew. All save Breq, who vows revenge against Anaander Mianaai herself, despite the fact that this is an impossible goal--like Justice of Toren, Mianaai is a distributed personality, existing simultaneously in thousands of bodies spread throughout all of Radchaai space, and Breq could only possibly hope to kill a few of them before being caught and executed.
(A word about pronouns. As has been widely reported by this point, Radch society does not distinguish between genders, and when Breq "translates" the Radch language into English, she chooses the female pronoun by default, rather than the male one as we're accustomed to. This is actually a lot less important to the novel than the discussion of it might lead you to expect. Some Radchaai characters, such as Seivarden, are biologically male, but neither they nor Breq are bothered by being referred to as "she," since they don't think of themselves as male or female, and have simply chosen one pronoun as a matter of convenience; in other cases, such as Lieutenant Awn, we never find out the character's gender. This is a clever consciousness-raising exercise, but also one that feels disconnected from the novel's main themes and preoccupations. The whole point of the device, after all, is that gender is not a big deal to these characters, and so it ends up not being a big deal in general. There are interestingly wrong-footing moments when we see Breq's blindness to gender through the eyes of non-Radch characters--when she tells a local doctor that "I can't see under your clothes. And even if I could, that's not always a reliable indicator," and has to contend with their incomprehension of her inability to deduce gender from social cues--but these feel like a neat aside rather than the point of the story. For the sake of convenience, and in keeping with Leckie's choice, I will continue referring to the novel's characters as "she" in this review, but it's worth remembering that this isn't entirely accurate.)
Most of what we learn about the Radch in the flashback chapters comes to us through speeches or Breq's internal narrative. We learn, for example, that for a thousand years the Radch has struggled with the legacy of the botched annexation of the planet Garsedd, whose leaders, armed with alien weapons, made a last-ditch attack against Anaander Mianaai, leading to horrific reprisals by the Radch against the planet's population. We also learn that shortly before Lieutenant Awn's death and Justice of Toren's destruction, a Radch governor in a far-flung outpost was discovered to have been engaging in widespread corruption and abuse, something that both the Radch's guiding philosophies and its overbearing system of government ought to have made impossible. Leckie's straightforward prose, and the fact that the world she's constructing is interesting and complex, help to make all this infodumping digestible, but mostly the reason that it works is the characters through which this history is filtered. Lieutenant Awn is an interesting example of a colonial representative. Born to a lower-class family, she's benefited from reforms that have opened up military service to people of her lineage, and as a result she buys into the Radch's central philosophy, and its claim to be bringing civilization and enlightenment to the people it annexes. But she can't ignore the resentment felt by her newly-annexed subjects, or the disdain with which she's held by some of her fellow officers. When she's forced to justify historical atrocities like the choice to make half of Garsedd's population into ancillaries, or admit to recent failures, including the fact that the officer who exposed the corrupt governor's crimes was executed by the Radch central authority for disobeying an order, it's easy to see the struggle between her belief in the Radch's rightness, and her own sense of right and wrong.
None of this is particularly original, of course, but the fact that it's seen through Breq's dispassionate eyes--more than two of them, in fact, as at this point in the story the Justice of Toren has dozens of ancillaries assigned to Awn--puts a unique spin on this familiar story. Breq's obvious and yet deeply suppressed fondness for Lieutenant Awn, and Awn's own fundamental decency, which is increasingly challenged as the plot to foment unrest on Shis'urna develops under her nose, create a sense of tension in these chapters despite the fact that the person telling the story is only barely human, and is sardonic and unemotional even at her most human-like moments.
Despite its space opera trappings--and the fact that both the protagonist and her would-be victim defy our definitions of personhood--there's something very familiar about Breq's quest for vengeance. It is, after all, a very old trope--the faithful retainer enraged by the mistreatment of their honorable commander by a system that turned out not to abide by its own stated ideals, who is forged by the fires of vengeance into something finer than their humble origins had destined them for. The scenes late in the novel, in which Breq meets some of Lieutenant Awn's old friends, who now know her only as a wealthy traveler, have a particularly Dumas-esque feel. It's got me wondering why there doesn't seem to have been any discussion comparing Ancillary Justice with Gwyneth Jones's 2009 novel Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant. While Jones wears her influence more prominently--Spirit is a straight-up space opera retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo--the similarities between the two novels run deep. Both center around a highly stratified space empire with a wide-reaching bureaucracy, whose participants are driven not just by the desire for advancement, but by genuine belief in a system of thought and philosophy that convinces them of the rightness and morality of their actions, and of the infallibility of their superiors. In the Radch, these are the tenets of Amaat, the belief that all action should be Just, Proper, and Beneficial--and that through the annexation of worlds, the Radch is helping their inhabitants achieve this goal.
Inevitably, in such stories, the corruption of the system is revealed when a mid-level functionary who believes in it--all the more so because they have climbed the social ladder by buying into their society's central philosophy--is destroyed by a ruling class that turns out to be not just corrupt but cynical, willing to suborn their stated values for the sake of temporary or even personal advancement. Ancillary Justice turns the screw even further when it reveals that the corruption at the heart of the empire is the literal corruption of Anaander Mianaai, whose constituent bodies have split into two factions--two personas--according to whether they believe that the Radch should continue expanding or slow its conquest, whether the social mobility of the low-born should be encouraged or discouraged, whether they buy into the self-serving myth of human superiority, or recognize that the aliens with which the Radch borders are advanced and extremely dangerous. The empire, which sells itself on the basis of its conformity and singularity of purpose, turns out to be irrevocably split, at war with itself over the basic tenets of its beliefs and self-definition.
Interesting as all this is, it can't get around the fact that Ancillary Justice feels as if its primary purpose is laying groundwork. This is particular problem in the book's final chapters, after Breq's flashbacks conclude and she makes her final moves towards a confrontation with Anaander Mianaai. Far from the climax of a grand quest for vengeance, these chapters feel like setup for the next part of this saga, their main purpose to get Breq recognized by the "right" Mianaai faction so that she can be placed in a position of power and take up her next role in the story. Even before this, however, Ancillary Justice's discussions of the Radch often feel more like a primer than anything tending towards a conclusion. There are some intriguing ideas--such as a local priest who suggests to Lieutenant Awn that, as horrifying as the ancillaries are, at least they can be trusted not to engage in the kind of abuses that human soldiers are prone to, from petty humiliation to rape--but on the whole it feels as if Leckie is working to acquaint us with what the Radch is so that later novels in the trilogy can use that information to decide what is to be done with it, and how it needs to change. It's a marvelous bit of worldbuilding, and Leckie is to be commended for creating a conformist hegemony whose members nevertheless feels human and distinct, but it leaves Ancillary Justice feeling as if it's missing a point.
Or maybe the problem is that the novel seems a little inconsistent about which tropes it wants to challenge and which it wants to indulge in. The story of the disenchanted avenger is a trope meant to question blind obedience and the conventions of honor, but the way in which Breq's revenge quest concludes works to undermine its message. Late in the novel, Breq watches a popular Radch entertainment about
a young woman of humble family with hopes of clientage to a more prestigious house. A jealous rival who undermines her, deceiving the putative patron as to her true, noble nature. The eventual recognition of the heroine's superior virtue, her loyalty through the most terrible trials, even uncontracted as she is, and the downfall of her rival, culminating in the long-awaited clientage contract and ten minutes of triumphant singing and dancingShe mentions it to Seivarden, who has been frozen for a thousand years, and who finds much about the altered Radch society bewildering and foreign:
"Let me guess!" Seivarden raised an eyebrow, sardonic. "The one everyone is talking about. The heroine is virtuous and loyal, and her potential patron's lover hates her. She wins through because of her unswerving loyalty and devotion."
"You've seen it?"
"More than once. But not for a very long time."
By this point, we've learned enough about the Radch and its stratified, class-conscious society to view the popularity of these kinds of stories with distrust--their narrative of virtue triumphing over social convention is intended to paper over the real issues of class prejudice that hinder most capable lower class citizens from climbing the social ladder (or the pitfalls that trip them up even once they've achieved a higher status, as in the case of Lieutenant Awn). It's less clear whether we're meant to notice that Ancillary Justice is also one of these stories--Breq isn't just lower class, by the standards of the Radchaai she isn't even human, and yet by the end of the novel her courage and devotion to Lieutenant Awn have not only gained her the respect of several high-ranking Radch officials, but she has been granted citizenship and the command of her own ship. All that's missing is the love story with a high-born Radchaai (and I'm betting rather heavily on that for the sequels). Is it even possible to question the very idea of empire through what is essentially a Horatio Hornblower story?
Some of this will no doubt be addressed in the sequels, and though I'm generally wary of trilogies (I realized a while ago that I tend to read first volumes in trilogies, enjoy them a lot, and then never get around to reading the next volumes, because there are so many other self-contained novels that I'd rather read first) it's hard not to turn the last page of Ancillary Justice and immediately want to know what's next for all its characters. I'm not sure that I would have crowned Ancillary Justice the science fiction novel of 2013, but I can also see why it ended up that way. There's something here for everyone, and all in a compact, effortlessly readable package. One of the problems with coming so late to a novel as rapturously received as Ancillarly Justice is that you have to resist the urge to damn it with faint praise--to say, "this isn't actually as great as you've been led to believe (because what could be), but it's still quite good." When actually, it is really hard to do everything that Leckie has done with this book, and to do it as well, or as seemingly effortlessly. If Ancillary Justice is not as revolutionary as its reception might have led a late reader to expect, that's not the fault of the novel, nor does it take away from what it actually accomplishes.