Review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
|Picture links to author's site|
I love this book. I treated poor Spouseman to a long, meandering dinner lecture about it (later followed by a similar one about the second novel in the series, Ancillary Sword.) I've recommended it to everyone who likes literary fiction, science fiction, feminist fiction, good fiction...heck, if I'm honest, I have to say I've recommended it to everyone I know.
It's been out for two years. It's won a ton of awards. It's a mind-blowing, gender-blurring, sweeping epic of a story wrapped up in a psychologically rich, deeply personal plot. It's exactly the kind of book I like to rave and gush about in print. So, why had I never written a good solid Books-Are-Food review of it?
Certainly not "because it isn't new." Every book is new to someone. And not "because it doesn't need it." I've written about the importance of reviews here in the past. My perspective is as valuable as any other reader's, and my audience reach is unique, no matter how much it might overlap with others. No piece of art can be reviewed too often, or by too many folk.
The answer to my question, I suspect, is that the idea intimidates the hell out of me. This isn't a simple book to explain or summarize. Even its cover blurb is a work of genius. (I re-read it for inspiration before writing my own book descriptions because it's just that brilliant.) How does it go? Well, I'm leery of block-quoting copyrighted work. Check the author's website. Here's the essence: "The story of a person who used to be a spaceship, one who is determined to track down the villain responsible for the destruction of her old self and all her crew." It's a perfect example of creation by exclusion. It's enough to paint an intriguing picture for a prospective reader, yes, but it's also the minimizing equivalent of describing Henry the Fifth as "a coming of age story."
This book is written in what I can only call first-person omniscient. (That one ambitious idea right there made it worth the read for me.) How does it work? Brilliantly. Many of the events unfold in the mind of the main character as she recalls a time when she was a singular intelligence housed within hundreds of human bodies plus a spaceship and all its included equipment. She is in multiple locations at the same time, but Ann Leckie makes each place feel real, each action immediate, and never loses the reader in space or time. The protagonist is shown to have the ability to process data in ways that no single person could, but she still retains a human perspective.
That's the mind-blowing aspect. Yeah. Now multiply that by the complication that the "language" of the main culture in the story has no gender, and that the author chose the female gender as her default in English to represent it. It was an eye-opening experience to find how much I rely on language cues and assumptions rather than physical description when building character images in my mind. The subversion of making feminine the default was far more disruptive than I ever would've expected, being that I identify as female.
Then there's the way it sucked me in. I have a deep, abiding love for in media res beginnings, and this one swallowed me whole. There are no long introductions, no extensive explanatory narrative, just a chatty first-person POV who seems to be describing a straightforward science-fiction situation. Almost immediately it develops speed and at one point quite literally goes over a cliff. Nothing is presented. The society is never judged or shown as A New Strange Thing. It's a reality experienced along with the characters. Everything is what it is. Interpretation is left to the reader.
The main storyline of Ancillary Justice is straightforward, and that was fine. Managing the uniqueness of the storytelling technique and getting comfortable in the vast, intricate universe Ann Leckie builds slowly, delicately, and oh-so-perfectly, through mise-en-scene exposure kept my headspace full. I would've been hard-pressed to follow anything complicated, but it's pretty simple: rescue an old comrade who has important connections, travel to a planet, maneuver events to get face-to-face with the person who caused the tragedy, confrontation and aftermath.
Let me be clear: there is an immense complexity to the plot of this book. The above synopsis is the best I can do without spending pages on it, and it does not come close to properly conveying the tight weave of past and present events that come together as the story progresses. Every step forward, every personal revelation, and every new connection settles into place and sets off a final whirl of action that resolves with hammering emotional impact. Still, at its root it was a simple enough tale. The language, the world-building, and the understated originality of it all--those things were all so stunning in combination that plot was the least of what held my attention.
Ancillary Justice is not an easy read. This isn't popcorn reading. (Oh, I do love my popcorn and cotton-candy reading.) It isn't meat & potatoes. It isn't an exotic treat or a rich dessert. It's a whole new array of flavors, ones I'd never before tasted. It's the first time I tried a red wine as a child. The experience was weird and not wholly comfortable, and my enjoyment of it was impossible to put into words. Decades later, though, I can still call up the flavor memory of that wine without effort. Ancillary Justice is the index by which I will measure all other things like it, should anyone attempt a similar dish.
Have I hooked you? Scared you off? Bored you silly? Doesn't matter in the long run. If you haven't read this yet, you're missing out on an experience like no other, but that's your choice. I did this review so I could say I did it. I made this. I put my blithering driveling fangirl adoration for this series into words at last.
Mission accomplished. Achievement unlocked.