Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 44 books in 2015, about the same as last year and still not where I'd like to be (I'm still working on what might yet be number 45, but I doubt I'll make it in the three hours and change I have left).  About a third of the books I read were science fiction, a much higher proportion than usual due to Hugo reading and some other writing projects I'm working on.  Though I've found some great new discoveries, it's not a ratio I'd like to maintain.  In 2016, I'd like to get back to reading more mainstream fiction, not to mention fantasy.  I also read quite a few short story collections (and an even larger number of uncollected short stories during my search for Hugo nominees early in the year), which I find more pleasing--I used to be a great lover of the short story collection, and I seem to have fallen out of the habit in recent years.  It's good to get back to it.

Highlights of the reading year include going back to The Lord of the Rings for the first time in nearly a decade (I storified my thoughts about the book and its legacy here), and further progress through Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels and stories.  I also reread Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in honor of the BBC's miniseries adaptation, and found it to be just as delightful and clever as I had remembered.  I made some forays into the bibliographies of authors that I've heard about for years but had never tried for myself, such as C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner, which read a little too much like Shōgun in space for my liking) and Lois McMaster Bujold (The Vor Game and Mirror Dance, both of which I liked--the latter especially).

Going into 2016, there are a few reading projects I'd like to get to.  I've been thinking of rereading Dune, which got a lot of attention this year for its 50th anniversary, and which I haven't read since my teens (I probably still won't bother with any of the sequels, though).  I'd also like to finally finish reading Gormenghast--I read the first book in my early twenties and found it stunning but also exhausting; I couldn't quite face going on to the concluding volumes in the trilogy.  Most of all, and as usual, I'd like to read more, read more widely, and read more of the right stuff.  I have quite a few enticing books in my TBR pile--several of them 2015 releases that I'd like to get to before the Hugo voting deadline--and if I get to a sizable portion of them, I think I'll probably have a pretty good time.

Best Books of 2015:
  • Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (review)

    I haven't yet read Cho's extremely well-received debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (though it's right at the top of that TBR pile I mentioned), but if it's anything like her short story collection, I don't doubt that it will be a blast.  Cho's writing is smart, funny, and heartfelt, combining fantasy with elements of the romance genre and a fascinating portrait of Malaysian life, whether back home or as ex-pats in the UK.  The sense of place that her stories evoke--where that place might be Malaysia, Britain, the spirit world, or a colony on the moon--is powerful and immediately convincing, and the thread tying her stories together is the way in which their origins and culture guide and define her characters, teaching them how to see the world and how to live in it.

  • The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III

    If you'd told me a few weeks ago that one of my favorite reads of 2015 would be Neil Gaiman's latest addition to the Sandman mythos, I would have called you crazy.  I picked up Overture almost out of the sense of obligation, and mostly out of curiosity.  I wasn't expecting Gaiman--whose writing I've found a little samey in recent years--to find new notes in a story that found its perfect and very decisive conclusion decades ago (especially in light of his previous addition, Endless Nights, which was the very definition of inessential).  But Overture turned out to be stunning--first, visually, with Williams delivering art that finally lives up to the title character's role as the lord of dreams and imagination.  Every page here is a wealth of imagery and color, nearly an assault on the senses if it weren't all done with such care and attention to detail.  But the story, too, is a delight, a sort of prequel to the Sandman story, which explains what Dream was doing that left him vulnerable to the decades-long imprisonment that kicks off the saga's events.  At points it veers into fanservice--there are details here that connect to loose ends in A Doll's House and A Game of You that didn't really need to be tied up--but the core of the story expands our understanding of Dream and his world in a way that reminded me why I found the original Sandman saga so compelling.  It's got me wanting to revisit this whole world all over again.

  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

    I can't remember the last book that left me feeling as exhilarated and energized as The Blazing World, and as desperate to press it into the hands of everyone I know.  On its surface, the story feels like a very familiar kind of complicated--an aging artist, convinced that her career has been stymied by her gender and the art world's misogyny, partners with three men to present her work under their name.  When she comes forward to claim her work as her own, the response--from the art world and her collaborators--is complex and causes unexpected ripples.  The story is told through document fragments, interviews, and competing narratives.  But the heart of The Blazing World isn't in its story, but in the fervent, overpowering personality of its main character, a difficult, mercurial, fiercely intelligent woman who is equal parts bully and victim, and whose passion for art and creation shines through every page of this book.  Nearly every character, in fact, is an artist of one sort or another, and The Blazing World is largely about how they see their work, how they create it, and how they feel about putting it into the world.  To read it is to become caught up in a storm of creativity and furious, churning thought, and it's hard not to turn the last page and want to join in the adventure of making something out of nothing, and hoping that someone will see it for what it is.

  • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

    I'm indebted to Nina Allan for introducing me to Whiteley, whose future work I anticipate with bated breath.  The Beauty is an eerie, claustrophobic novella that combines post-apocalypse, body horror, and an examination of gender roles in a way that is both horrifying and seductive.  A colony of lonely men in a world in which women have all died are overjoyed to be joined by a troupe of beautiful, accommodating women.  So overjoyed, in fact, that they fervently ignore everything that is strange and offputting about these women, who may not even be women at all.  As the men begin to experience physical changes in response to their "wives," they have to decide what's more important to them--their identity as men (and as human beings), or the love that their new partners offer them.  Utterly disturbing but also impossible to stop thinking about once you put it down, The Beauty was one of the finest works of genre I read last year.
Honorable mentions:
  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link - This would probably be in the best books list proper if I hadn't read some of the best stories here--such as "I Can See Right Through You," "Valley of the Girls," and "Light"--before picking it up.  But it's great to revisit those stories, and to discover some of the other pieces here that were new to me, and which are typically excellent.

  • Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee - Once again, I've been reading Lee's short fiction piecemeal for years, but it was only when I saw all these stories together in one volume that I realized what an amazing writer he is, imaginative and skilled with a phrase.  I'm really looking forward to his debut novel next year.
I'm glad to say that hardly any book I read in 2015 was bad enough to qualify for a worst books list, and the one exception was so painful and disappointing that I'd really rather not write about it.  So instead, let's have a discussion of how that disappointment came to be ever-so-slightly mollified.
  • The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

    Earlier this year, I read Pratchett's Raising Steam, the penultimate Discworld novel and the last aimed at adult readers.  When I finished it, I was so angry that I didn't even know what to write, and so ended up writing nothing.  I didn't even know on whose behalf I should be angrier--Pratchett himself, whose many accomplishments deserved so much better than to be capped off with a barely-publishable and often offensive mess, or his fans, who were apparently expected to keep handing over money no matter how degraded the material appearing under Pratchett's name had become.

    So I'm very grateful for The Shepherd's Crown, and for the fact that I've been able to put my decades-long love affair with Pratchett's writing to rest on a more positive note, rather than end it with the sour disappointment of Raising Steam.  To be clear, The Shepherd's Crown is far from Pratchett at his best, and though the book's afterword tries to blame this on the fact that it was left as only a first draft at the time of his death, it's clear that the problems afflicting it run deeper and are similar to the ones that marred much of his writing in the last five years (including, unfortunately, the sad curdling of his liberalism, which began in Snuff, and here results in some oddly regressive attitudes towards gender roles).  But like most of the Tiffany Aching novels, it benefits from a strong, wistful sense of place, and from the dominant personalities of its witch characters.  It's a strange coincidence that the final Discworld novel ended up being the one in which Pratchett laid to rest one of his most iconic characters, but to its credit the book doesn't coast on that borrowed significance.  The chapters depicting Granny Weatherwax's death and its quiet, orderly aftermath are some of the most moving in the book, especially as they bring Tiffany, who started the series mourning for her grandmother, who had loomed as large in her life as Granny did for so many Discworld readers, full circle.  The actual story is, unfortunately, rather thin (it's here that the book's being a draft probably comes most into play), but the emotional highlights still hit home.  If The Shepherd's Crown is not quite the reminder we needed of why Pratchett was such an important writer to so many of us, it is at least a good way to say goodbye.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A few weeks ago, someone on my twitter feed joked that soon, we'd be inundated with a million reviews and thinkpieces about The Force Awakens all starting the same way--with a recitation of the author's personal connection to Star Wars, how they first encountered the movies, what their emotional reaction to the prequels was, and what place the franchise holds in their heart.  This threw me, because it made me realize that I honestly have no idea how I feel about Star Wars.  I don't love it.  I don't hate it.  I can't be indifferent to it--no person who comments on pop culture, and particularly geek culture, can do that.  When I searched my heart for the feelings about Star Wars that were uniquely and untouchably my own, all I found was a big question mark.

So I went back--for the first time in at least a few years--and rewatched the original films (I didn't bother with the prequels, because I know perfectly well how I feel about them--they're awful, and pointless, and watching them once in the movie theater fifteen years ago was at least 0.5 times too many).  And honestly, that just left me feeling more uncertain.  Because the truth is, the original Star Wars films are fractally awful.  The closer you examine them, the more apparently fatal flaws you notice.  The story makes no sense.  The worldbuilding is laughable when it isn't offensive.  The dialogue is wooden.  The actors are even more so, and the only exception consistently makes acting choices that seem rooted mainly in orneriness.  The characters behave like dim children, and their reactions to calamity, either personal or global, are basically sociopathic.  The good guys only win because the bad guys are stupid and incompetent.  The central love story is creepy (and that's before you even get to the inadvertent incest).  And the philosophical conflict that underpins the entire series runs the gamut from hopelessly muddled to morally bankrupt.  The only thing the series has going for it are its visuals (which are on gorgeous display in the most recent, HD versions of the films, though Lucas's CGI embellishments from 1997 look a lot less convincing than the original footage from the 70s and 80s).  But even then, what starts out as genuinely artful in the first half hour of A New Hope devolves into self-cannibalism by the end of Return of the Jedi.

But having said all this, no, I still do not hate Star Wars.  I still, in fact, feel deeply for Luke and Han and Leia, even if I can't tell you why, and I still have a fond reaction to terms like lightsaber, Death Star, and the Force.  I think I like the idea of this story more than I like the reality of it, which is almost enough to get you to buy that Joseph Campbell claptrap that Lucas has been peddling for the better part of four decades.  Maybe the answer is simply that Star Wars is like chewing gum--fun and tasty at first, but the more you chew on it, the less flavor it has, until keeping at it feels more like a chore than a treat.  We've been chewing on this particular piece of gum for 38 years, so it's not surprising that my main reaction to the franchise at this stage is ennui.  It certainly doesn't help that Star Wars has been everywhere in 2015, that the new film's publicity machine has been utterly inescapable, that the internet has been occupied by hardly anything else for the last few weeks (though at least the obsession with avoiding spoilers has provided us with this handy comparison, throwing into sharp relief just how much the entitlement of fanboys is prioritized above the safety and wellbeing of women and people of color).  In the face of all that excitement, all that anxiety, how can someone like me, who at this point mainly finds Star Wars rather fatiguing, even know how she feels?

So probably the best compliment that I can pay J.J. Abrams's The Force Awakens is to say that it has largely swept away my fatigue with Star Wars.  This is not to say that it's a great, or even a very good, movie.  Like the original films, it has flaws that only loom larger the closer you examine it.  It's too long.  Its plot is basically a whole bunch of setup and scene-setting poured into the rough outline of A New Hope.  The mission that makes up its final set-piece was clearly arrived at because someone asked "what's cooler than a Death Star?" and the only answer they could come up with was "an even bigger Death Star!"  Its worldbuilding makes no sense within the film itself and, once it's explained to you, is really quite massively ethically dodgy.  But nevertheless, it's a hell of a lot of fun, with a plot that moves effortlessly, genuinely exciting action scenes, winning characters, and some interesting additions, especially on the visual front, to the series's universe.  All of this is enough so that while you're watching The Force Awakens, its problems seem a lot less important than its pleasures.  Now, possibly all this is just me saying that someone has handed me a fresh stick of chewing gum, but especially with the example of the prequels before us (or for that matter, Abrams's previous attempt to revitalize a moribund SF franchise), let's not pretend that this is an easy thing to do.

As noted, The Force Awakens largely recapitulates the beats of A New Hope, so the plot can be glossed over rather quickly.  Rey (Daisy Ridley), a plucky orphan on a backwater desert planet, finds a droid carrying information crucial to the rebellion against the empire (both "rebellion" and "empire" are being used here as stand-ins for the names the film gives these bodies, but this is effectively what they are; if you actually try to work out the film's geopolitics, you'll end up with either a headache or a burning rage; best not to, either way).  In her quest to return the droid to its owner, she's joined by renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and is taken under the wing of a mysterious old man, here played by Harrison Ford.  (The third member of of the film's trio of young heroes, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron, is actually a lot less important to the story than the film's promotional material leads us to expect.  He disappears after the first act and never even interacts with Rey.  For most of the movie, the central trio are Rey, Finn, and Han).  The three of them (plus Chewie, of course) bounce around on the Millennium Falcon, facing various dangers, until they arrive at the rebellion headquarters and the film's final act, which revolves around destroying the Death Star (sorry, mega-Death Star).

There are really only two things that Abrams does in The Force Awakens that feel like his own additions to the story, and like setup for his own trilogy rather than a retelling of Lucas's.  The first is that the quest its heroes are set on is the search for the long-missing Luke Skywalker.  The second is that the villain of the piece, the Sith lord Kylo Ren, is Han and Leia's son (real name: Ben, which honestly makes no sense as a name that Han and Leia would give their child).  Technically, the fact that Finn is an ex-stormtrooper is also an original touch, but this is something the film does almost nothing with.  Finn's moral awakening and decision to leave the empire happen in all of a single scene, and as it turns out he never even committed any real atrocities.  We learn that he was essentially a janitor for most of his career, and he never fires his weapon in the battle that crystalizes his realization that he hates his job.

Luke's absence is something that hangs over the film but doesn't really shape it--he's more of a McGuffin who will probably have more of an effect in the next movie(s).  Kylo Ren, meanwhile, is the film's biggest problem, and the place where Abrams most struggles to escape the gravity well of Lucas's shoddy worldbuilding.  We get vague hints of his background--he's disappointed with his parents, especially Han; he was trained by Luke but seduced by the Dark Side; he's currently the apprentice of the new trilogy's Big Bad, the unfortunately-named Supreme Leader Snoke (a CGI puppet voiced by Andy Serkis).  He's also obsessed with his grandfather, and with recapturing what he sees as Vader's lost glory.  But the problem here is that the Star Wars films have never done a particularly good job of defining the light and dark sides of the Force, nor why anyone would be drawn to them.  When Luke supposedly struggles with the pull of the dark side at the end of Return of the Jedi, absolutely nothing shows up on screen, and we have no idea why becoming evil is suddenly so seductive.  There's a similar opacity when we're told that Kylo, though sworn to the dark side, is "tempted" by the light.

What little moral philosophy is laid out by Lucas in the original trilogy is barely worth scrutinizing.  Luke is apparently in danger of becoming evil because he feels anger and hatred towards Emperor Palpatine, a man who has subjugated the galaxy, ordered the murder of billions, and is about to kill Luke's friends.  The planet-destroying, child-murdering Darth Vader, meanwhile, becomes good by saving the life of his son, which is surely at least partly a selfish act.  Oddly enough, it's the prequels that actually come closest to explaining the allure of the dark side, with their story of an abused former slave who is unable to let go of the anxiety and rage bred in him by years of precarious living and the loss of his family, who turns to the dark side for a sense of control (to be clear, the prequels tell this story abominably--"from my point of view, the Jedi are evil," anyone?--but the bones of it are extremely compelling).  But even there, Lucas's ideas of good and evil are simplistic and even offensive.  The Jedi are right to tell Anakin that fear and anger are the path to the dark side.  But instead of teaching him to overcome those feelings (or, for that matter, doing anything for the people still languishing in slavery and oppression, the causes of Anakin's fear and anger), the Jedi tell him that he is a bad person for feeling them.  Unsurprisingly, this does not end well.

Kylo Ren, a child of privilege who was raised by loving parents, doesn't have Anakin's justification for feeling fear and anger.  Neither is he as fearsome as Darth Vader--his displays of anger feel more like tantrums.  He is, in short, an utterly pathetic, entitled, whiny excuse for a villain, made all the more unpalatable because he apparently feels stirrings of conscience but chooses to ignore them.  If The Force Awakens intended for us to recognize how unimpressive Kylo is and leave it at that, that would be one thing.  But to me it feels as if the film wants us to be interested in him, and even wish for his redemption.  Since "redemption," in this case, would mean Kylo getting over his unjustified self-pity and not hurting people for a second, I find myself utterly unsympathetic, and genuinely resentful of every second spent in his presence.  It's particularly annoying that most of the emotional weight of Han's presence in the film (and all of Leia's) is expended on his grief for his son and his desire to save him, when I have to believe that the real Han would have absolutely no patience for the self-pitying streak of piss he somehow managed to raise.

Happily, there's a lot less Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens than there is Finn and Rey, both of whom are delightful.  To be fair, the writing for both characters cuts corners--as I've already said, it isn't really believable that Finn was raised from a child to be a stormtrooper, or that he breaks free of his indoctrination so quickly and so easily.  As for Rey, there's been some criticism of her super-competence--she's a genius engineer, a hotshot pilot, and incredibly strong in the Force--and to be honest, I feel that there's some merit to these complaints.  The Star Wars films are full of preternaturally gifted characters, from Luke Skywalker himself, to Finn and Poe (who are, respectively, a gifted fighter who can pick up any weapon, including a lightsaber, and learn to use it within seconds, and an exceptional pilot who can fly anything).  But Rey's competence moves the plot and solves her problems a lot more often than they do for any other character in the series, and at some point it's hard not to roll your eyes at that.  For me, that point came in the scene in which Kylo Ren tries to interrogate Rey using the Force.  I can accept that Rey manages to turn Kylo's mind probe back on him, because she's been established as a character who can very quickly figure out how things work and use them to her advantage.  It makes less sense to me, however, that in the very next scene Rey uses the Jedi mind trick on a stromtrooper, even though she's never seen it used and, for all we know, doesn't even know that such a thing is possible.  By the end of the film, when Rey beats Kylo in a lightsaber duel despite never having wielded the weapon before, it's hard not to feel that her awesomeness is being layered on a bit thick.

None of this, however, makes Rey a bad character, because the more competent and powerful she becomes, the greater the challenges the film throws in her path.  There is, in addition, something deeply compelling, and quietly heroic, about the matter of fact attitude that Rey takes towards her own abilities, her obvious belief that she is always the person for the job because she's always been able to do it.  Early in the film, she announces that she is waiting for her family--for, it's strongly implied, years and even decades.  "They'll be back, though," she says simply.  The strength required to maintain that faith (and the toll that it nevertheless takes on Rey, whose constant motion is clearly an attempt to tamp down deep-seated anxiety) shines through her every action, and it's that same strength that powers Rey's incredible skill and competence.  It also helps that Rey sparks delightfully with Finn and Han, both of whom are able to keep up with her quick mind.  Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Rey and Finn or Rey and Han furiously discussing a problem and rushing towards a solution at a breakneck pace, quipping at each other all the way.  In the end, the reason that The Force Awakens works as well as it does is that it has Rey at its heart, and that her heart is so obviously pure and true.

A lot of the criticism of The Force Awakens has centered around how derivative it is of A New Hope, with critics decrying it as yet another example of Hollywood's wholesale surrender to nostalgia.  I don't think this is wrong, but I think the word missing from most of these discussions is also the one that most perfectly describes the film: fanfic.  I mean this not in the wide and commonly used sense in which any work set in a universe created by someone other than its current writer is fanfic, but in a very specific way.  Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, for example, are not fanfic of the original series, because they both take the foundation it built seriously, and add something new to it with its own flavor and purpose.  Abrams's own version of Star Trek, meanwhile, is not fanfic, because it lacks the crucial "fan" component, hollowing out the original Star Trek until all that's left is its exterior and filling it with something completely different.  The Force Awakens is fanfic because it is both deeply reverent of the original it builds on, and doesn't add much of its own flavor--though it must be said that this is at least partly Lucas's fault, for constructing a story so flimsy that very little substantial addition could be made to it without completely changing its nature (as we saw in the case of the prequels).  It is good fanfic, though, the kind that finds new notes that the creator never thought of--it's clear, for example, that Abrams has given some thought to the cool things you could do with the Force, as when Kylo Ren stops a blaster pulse in mid-air; and when Kylo and Finn fight with light sabers, they get scorched and cut, because that's what would happen if you fought with flaming swords.  And it's the kind of fanfic that gives more space to women and people of color than the original trilogy did.  That's definitely worth your time and money, and as I've said, it has reinvigorated my fondness for this series--without trying to make it something it isn't and could never be.  But to me, it also illustrates the limitations of this fictional world, and the reason why I will never feel as strongly about it as I do for others.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Show Me a Hero: Thoughts on Jessica Jones

2015 has been an interesting year for Marvel Studios and the MCU.  The ever-expanding franchise's movie wing struggled this year, closing out the otherwise excellent Phase II with the overstuffed Avengers: Age of Ultron and the underbaked Ant-Man, two very different movies whose single shared trait is how definitively they demonstrate that Marvel isn't interested in--is, in fact, terrified of--letting women take center stage in its movies.  The TV arm, meanwhile, premiered three very interesting--if, ultimately, imperfect--projects, all of whom gave more space to women and people of color than the movies seemingly ever will.  Agent Carter finally gave one the MCU's most magnetic characters (and performers) her own platform, though the show struggled to find something to do with its protagonist, or, with one important exception, to surround her with equally interesting supporting characters.  Daredevil is easily the most experimental--visually and structurally--thing that Marvel has produced, and features one of its best villains, even if it the show as a whole lacks a coherent, interesting story.  And now, just as the year winds to a close, Marvel's partnership with Netflix delivers what is not only its best TV series thus far, but a work that would easily rank near the top of any list of the MCU's properties--Jessica Jones.

Based on the comic by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones's eponymous heroine (Krysten Ritter) is a hard-drinking, self-destructive private detective with (thus far unexplained) super-strength.  In the pilot episode, Jessica is hired to track down a missing girl, and as she traces her footsteps she realizes that the girl has been taken by Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man with mind-control powers who held Jessica, compelling her to act as his girlfriend and commit crimes on his behalf, for months, leaving her shattered and suffering from PTSD.  When Kilgrave compels his latest victim to commit a gruesome murder on Jessica's doorstep, she vows to hunt him down and stop him.

At its most basic level, the genius of Jessica Jones is that this is all it's about.  This small, intimate, self-contained story, whose parameters are the polar opposite of the globe-spanning stories and world-destroying stakes that the MCU usually delivers.  Kilgrave, a narcissist who cares only for his own pleasure, has neither the power nor, really, any interest in ruling or destroying the world.  He's only a danger to the people unlucky enough to cross his path.  For those people, though, he is a nightmare.  In one scene, we see him order a man to "cross the street, face that fence, and stay there forever."  The next time we see the poor man, hours later, he's still facing the fence, his face a rictus of horror.  Jessica's goal, meanwhile, isn't to kill Kilgrave (which she is actually in the position to do, with relatively little difficulty, several times throughout the course of the season) but to prove the existence of his powers and thus the innocence of the people who have been left holding the bag for the crimes he ordered them to commit--chiefly Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), the young woman Jessica was hired to find in the pilot.  Most MCU movies and shows struggle to find a challenge worthy of their heroes, but by making the stakes of its story so personal Jessica Jones delivers something that strikes at the heart far more powerfully than the near-destruction of the planet in Age of Ultron.[1] The evil that Kilgrave does, though localized, is viscerally horrifying.  The fact that he will almost certainly get away with it, unless Jessica manages to outsmart him, is enraging.  By the time its pilot episode ends, Jessica Jones has got us irresistibly on the hook--we need Jessica to defeat Kilgrave in a way that no other MCU story has managed.

It's a good thing that Jessica Jones has such an ironclad story, because on a technical level, it is rarely more than OK.  It feels, in fact, like the exact mirror image of Daredevil, a show whose first season was misshapen and badly paced, but whose individual moments--scenes like Karen's confrontation with Wesley, Matt's conversations with Father Lantom, or the famous hallway fight--remain etched in memory.  There are no moments on this level in Jessica Jones, but creator Melissa Rosenberg and her writers manage what Daredevil didn't, to structure their season in a way that is impeccably paced, never letting up on the story while still giving the audience room to breathe (unlike Daredevil, whose lopsided structure made it ideal for binge-watching, Jessica Jones would probably have worked just as well as a weekly series).  Visually, too, Jessica Jones lacks Daredevil's flourishes, its use of repeating visual motifs, of color and texture, and of course its amazing fight choreography (this last one is somewhat justified, because Kilgrave is not a fighter and Jessica relies more on brute strength than skill, but it's still a shame that the show's action scenes are so lackluster).  None of this is a dealbreaker--again, all this serviceable yet unremarkable writing is working to move the plot along, and does so perfectly--but in a year in which Netflix has repeatedly pushed the envelope in terms of what television is capable of, delivering not just Daredevil but also Sense8, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Master of None, it's a bit disappointing that Jessica Jones looks and sounds so conventional.

This is not to say, however, that Jessica Jones is only conventional.  If the show lacks its own style, it more than makes up for it by having a very definite point of view--that of a show by, about, and for women.  This goes all the way down to the smallest details, such as the fact that bit parts that in almost any other series would have been filled by men almost as a matter of course--roles like a courier delivering a package, a guest on a radio talk show, or a drug dealer--are here played by women.  Or the fact that the show casts many of its recurring and guest roles with middle-aged characters actresses like Carrie-Anne Moss, Robin Weigert, Jessica Hecht, and Rebecca De Mornay.  Or the fact that it features three gay women.  Even closer to the core of its story, the show continues to prioritize female characters and female relationships.  Its central relationship is between Jessica and her foster-sister Trish (Rachael Taylor), and though both women have romantic subplots--Jessica with handsome bar owner Luke Cage (Mike Colter, whose own MCU Netflix series will debut next year); Trish with police officer Will Simpson (Wil Traval), another of Kilgrave's victims who tries to join Jessica's fight against him--ultimately both of these men are treated as sideshows to the season's main love story between the two sisters.[2]

And then, of course, there's the thing that everyone has been talking about, the fact that Jessica Jones is explicitly, unabashedly, a show about rape, abuse, and recovering from them.  In the original comics Kilgrave was a supervillain who used his control of Jessica to get her to betray the Avengers.  The show quite wisely gives him a more personal, and thus more revolting, motive.  Kilgrave claims to be in love with Jessica, but really he wants to possess her, and the things he does to get her attention--from sending Hope to destroy herself in front of her, to placing a spy in her building, to targeting the people she cares about like Trish and Luke--are designed to isolate her and play on her feelings of guilt and self-loathing.  The real danger to Jessica throughout the season is not that Kilgrave might kill her--which he does not want to do--but that she might buy into his toxic worldview, become convinced that his "love" for her is real, or at least the best that she could ever hope for after everything he's done to her and made her do.  Kilgrave's power becomes a metaphor for the entitled narcissism of an abuser, who sees other people only in terms of what they can do for him, and is incapable of recognizing that they are real people with real feelings.[3]

As brilliant as Kilgrave is as a portrait of an abuser, what's even more brilliant about Jessica Jones is that he is not the only abusive character on screen, and that unlike him, the others are less obviously monstrous even as they cause tremendous damage.  Moss, for example, plays high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth, who is leaving her wife, Wendy (Weigert), for her secretary.  When the divorce turns acrimonious, Hogarth enlists Kilgrave's help in getting her wife to back down from her demands, with predictably horrible results.  Unlike Kilgrave, Hogarth is not a sociopath, and yet when she's confronted with the consequences of her actions, she retreats into the same justifications that Kilgrave offers.  "You told me to handle it," she tells her mistress, who was forced to kill Hogarth's wife in self-defense.  "I didn't do anything.  You chose to pick up that thing and crush her skull."

Even more interesting is the story the show gives Simpson, who nearly kills Trish under Kilgrave's orders, and is then driven by his guilt over this to join Jessica's campaign against Kilgrave.  On another show, Simpson might be the hero.  His actions while under Kilgrave's control are just bad enough to make him seem dangerous, but not so bad as to make him look unattractively vulnerable (in other words, he hurts other people, but he never compromises his own masculinity).  He's driven by guilt over hurting a woman, but this doesn't stop her from embarking on a romantic relationship with him.  But because the show is Jessica and Trish's story, Simpson's determination to redeem himself, while understandable and even sympathetic, comes off as pushy and entitled, and as the season draws on he keeps throwing up red flags that, on their own, can be explained and excused, but which taken together paint a picture of a man who is driven primarily by the need to protect his own brittle self-image.  It's understandable that Simpson would want to apologize to Trish, but the fact that he insists that she allow him to do this, camping out on her doorstep for hours, is more worrying.  It's understandable that Simpson would feel that his special ops background makes him uniquely qualified to fight Kilgrave, but the fact that, once Jessica refuses him, he starts badmouthing her to Trish behind her back feels like a deliberate tactic.  It's understandable that Simpson would disagree with Jessica about whether it's more important to kill Kilgrave or help his falsely-accused victims, but the fact that he tries to sabotage her attempts to do the latter feels like it's more about satisfying his needs than doing the right thing.

By the season's final stretch, it becomes clear that what's driving Simpson is his inability to accept that he was made to lose control of himself.  Which is, again, understandable and sympathetic, but his method of dealing with this is to cede control--to the scientists who experimented on him in the army, giving him a drug that turns him into a monster of rage and adrenalin.  This is important, because the image that a lot of abusers project--and which the public discourse around abuse often buys into--is that they are slaves to their own rage.  This is how Simpson excuses his behavior after the drugs he takes lead him to attack Trish and Jessica.  But the truth is that Simpson gave himself permission to lose control when he chose to take those drugs, and that he continues to make that choice even after seeing its destructive consequences, all because he can't face up to the fact that he might be powerless before people like Kilgrave--and Jessica.[4]

What makes Jessica Jones worth watching, however, is that it's not just a show about fascinating but horrible people.  Hogarth, Simpson, and Kilgrave exist, in part, to offer a contrast to the main story of the show, which is about people who are trying to overcome abuse without becoming abusers themselves.  This they achieve with varying degrees of success--indeed, it's one of the show's smartest choices to feature a wide variety of abuse survivors, with varying coping strategies.  They range from the seemingly together (yet perhaps not so stable) Trish, a do-gooder who has the heart of a superhero even if she doesn't have the strength; to Jessica's neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville), who wants to continue to believe in people's goodness but struggles with the effects of Kilgrave's influence on him, and with the question of whether he chose to obey his orders; to Hope, who descends into nihilism after Kilgrave makes her out to be a monster, but is galvanized by Jessica's belief in her to keep fighting.  And then of course, there's Jessica herself, whose responses to Kilgrave's abuse are deeply conflicted and self-contradictory, never purely good or bad.  She self-medicates with alcohol, engages in risky behavior, and refuses to get treatment for her PTSD, but her destructiveness is only ever pointed inwards--even in her darkest moments, she rarely loses enough control to hurt others indiscriminately.  And while her determination to fight for Kilgrave's victims seems admirable, it is also clearly an act of projection.  Jessica is so determined to prove the innocence of Kilgrave's other victims, and to convince them that they are not responsible for what he made them do, because she holds herself to too high a standard to ever forgive herself for doing the same.

That Jessica's reaction to abuse is so multifaceted--and rarely purely heroic--feels important given the fraught history that the superhero genre has with trauma and abuse.  Most superheroes, after all, originate in acts of abuse, trauma, and violation, from Batman's murdered parents to the human experimentation that produced Captain America.  And many supervillains are, equally, victims of abuse or experimentation who have reacted violently and vengefully to their violation.  Superhero stories thus often fall into the trap of fetishizing abuse, usually while ignoring its systemic causes, and even more disturbingly, of drawing arbitrary and unrealistic distinctions between the "right" and "wrong" reactions that victims have to it.  That Jessica does not respond to being raped and violated in the correct way, while still behaving heroically and selflessly, is an important reminder that there is no "good" way to respond to abuse, and more importantly, that abuse is not a means to an end, as too many superhero stories end up implicitly suggesting.[5]  And the fact that Jessica is struggling to find a way to overcome her experiences without losing herself to them lends moral weight to her words when she chastises others for not doing the same--as opposed to other superhero stories, in which deeply privileged heroes lecture traumatized victims about the need to let go of their anger.

In fact, if there's a single problem with the show's handling of Jessica, it is that it doesn't go far enough in depicting the ugliness that would almost have to result from the trauma she's endured.  Ritter is more than game, but Jessica Jones seems a little afraid to make her into the anti-hero that it keeps telling us that she is.  Despite her self-destructiveness and bad attitude, Jessica is a deeply compassionate, selfless person, who spends most of the season trying to help near-strangers, and who never quite seems to earn the disdain and exasperation that so many of the show's characters direct towards her.  Even Jessica's alcoholism, which is referred to frequently throughout the season, feels like an informed trait.  We keep seeing her down drinks, but at no point does her supposed addiction get in the way of her quest.  (It doesn't help that Ritter simply does not look like a woman who has been living at the bottom of a bottle for the better part of a year.)

Paradoxically, the moments when Jessica does do things that are beyond the pale are underplayed and minimized by the show.  In a moment of crisis, she attacks and nearly kills Wendy Hogarth, but she also saves her life at the last minute, and anyway this attempted murder feels less important after Hogarth's own actions get Wendy killed.  More importantly, early in the season we learn that the thing that most haunts Jessica about her time with Kilgrave is the fact that he made her kill a woman, who turns out to be Luke's wife.  Obsessed with this guilt, Jessica begins stalking Luke, and finally embarks on a sexual relationship with him without telling him about their connection.  When Luke learns the truth, he voices his disgust in terms that seem deliberately reminiscent of the accusations of sexual abuse that Jessica makes to Kilgrave: "You slept with me. ... You let me be inside you.  You touched me with the same hands that killed my wife."  And yet for the rest of the season, the fact that Jessica chose, of her own free will, to commit this violation against Luke is never discussed, and everyone behaves as if the thing Jessica has to feel guilty about is the act she couldn't control, killing Luke's wife, and not the one she could.  At the end of the season, Claire even encourages Luke to give his relationship with Jessica another shot.

It's hard to escape the feeling that Jessica Jones is afraid to let its heroine be truly bad and off-putting.  The things that supposedly make her an anti-hero are actually extremely sympathetic traits, while the actual wrongs she commits are not sufficiently acknowledged.[6]  This feels particularly important because next season, the show isn't going to have Kilgrave to kick around any more.  Without that brilliant, deeply resonant story, Jessica Jones is going to have to rely more strongly on its title character, and I'm not convinced that it has enough faith in her--or in the audience's willingness to accept her as a protagonist even if she does things that are ugly and un-heroic.  If that happens, we'll still have this brilliant first season, and the fact that it finally found a strong, compelling story to tell within the MCU, but I'd like to believe that the best show Marvel has produced has more life in it than just one story.



[1] In fact, the only real problem with the show's premise is that it inadvertently makes SHIELD look completely useless.  Kilgrave, as we learn by the end of the season, has been leaving a trail of dead bodies and broken lives behind him for decades, and yet the organization whose job it was to deal with people like him never even noticed he existed.  Given my growing disgust with SHIELD, however, I'm inclined to view this as more of a feature than a bug.

[2] The show is also good at filling its street scenes and backgrounds with a mix that reflects the actual New York's diversity, and two of the main characters are played by black men, but women of color fare less well.  Only one female character of any importance is played by a person of color--Daredevil transplant Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson)--and she only appears in one episode.

[3] Tennant is unsurprisingly excellent in the role, but it's hard to shake the conviction that Rosenberg cast him as Kilgrave primarily because of his status as a beloved geek icon, the better to puncture certain toxic habits of thought in that community, such as the tendency to excuse and apologize for the entitled, self-absorbed behavior of white, male characters.

[4] Another important aspect of the Simpson subplot is the fact that Trish continues to buy into his self-presentation as a good man who was made evil by drugs.  The show positions Trish as the stable, healthy counterpoint to Jessica's self-destruction, someone who has processed and gotten past her own history of child abuse even as Jessica remains trapped by her various traumas.  But the fact that she falls for Simpson's manipulations suggests that she's just as damaged as Jessica--and reminds us of how pernicious those manipulations are.

[5] It also helps that Jessica's powers are not the result of Kilgrave's abuse, though the season strongly suggests that they originate in illegal experimentation, another kind of abuse to which Kilgrave was also subjected.

[6] In a way, Jessica Jones is a victim of its timing.  In any other year, it would be revolutionary simply for being female-focused and for touching on issues of trauma and abuse. But in 2015, which also gave us Mad Max: Fury RoadUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and UnREAL--all female-focused works that touch on similar topics as Jessica Jones--it's easier to notice that its execution, though still very fine, falls short of the others.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

When coming so late to a novel that has been as rapturously received as Ann Leckie's debut (it is the winner of--deep breath, now--the Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, BSFA, Locus, and Kitschie awards, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award, and noted in the Tiptree award honor roll) there's a temptation to focus one's critical thoughts on the obvious question: why this book?  What is it about Ancillary Justice that made it the science fiction novel of 2013?  This is, clearly, an unanswerable question, especially when coming to the novel so long after its debut, when the things that set it apart have been so thoroughly chewed over, celebrated, discussed, reevaluated, and taken for granted that the distance between you and the people who read the novel cold is basically unbridgeable.  But I think that probably the best compliment I can pay Ancillary Justice is to say that very shortly after starting to read it, I stopped trying to work out the answer to the question of its popularity, and got about just enjoying the book and its characters.

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 dancing
She 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.