Ancillary Justice is the first book in the sci-fi trilogy Imperial Radch. The sequels are Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy.
I went into Ancillary Justice with really high expectations, and even then it managed to surprise me.
Ancillary Justice is a story set in the space empire called Radch, across different timelines, because all the main characters are more than a thousand years old.
⇝ The protagonist of this novel claims to be Breq from the Gerentate, but is actually a spaceship in a trench coat. “Breq” is an ancillary, one of the many once-human bodies that were inhabited by the AI of the ship Justice of Toren. Severed from the rest of herself and her other bodies, Breq is now pursuing a goal.
⇝ Said goal is killing the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, who is probably the weirdest antagonist I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Not only she decided to achieve ubiquity by multiplying herself and scattering her many bodies across the Radch, she is also now engaged in a surprisingly elaborate scheme of self-backstabbing.
⇝ In the present timeline, which starts on the cold, non-Radchaai world of Nilt, Breq finds Seivarden Vendaai. She was a (human) captain of a ship a thousand years before. Her character development – overcoming the addiction to Kef, losing her high-born habits and the prejudices that come with them – was one of my favorite parts of the present storyline.
⇝ In the past timeline, we follow the aftermath of the annexation of Shis’urna and the associated political intrigue. It’s the story of what happened to the Justice of Toren, of what made Breq the person she is today. I didn’t love the time jumps in the beginning, but I don’t think the story could have been told any other way, and I really liked the side characters (Lieutenant Awn and Lieutenant Skaaiat, mainly) in this storyline as well.
What stands out the most about Ancillary Justice apart from the very unique characters and premise is the worldbuilding. The Radch is a gender-neutral society with a complex and (for an evil colonial empire) surprisingly accepting religious system. It’s the kind of detailed-but-not-infodumpy worldbuilding I love, the kind that lets you discover more and more details and layers with every reread. It’s also perfect for the exploration of class privilege and of the blurred lines between human and non-human, which are some of the main themes in this novel.
This book also doesn’t fall in common space opera clichés: it has many scenes set on planets, but those planets have their own political situation, traditions, societies and they have more than one climate. Even the “cold” world has warmer parts. (Yes, I’m tired of lazily-written planets, make those space rocks more interesting, please.)
But those are not the only reasons I loved Ancillary Justice. What makes it a book that I’ll probably remember as a favorite in the following years are also the humor and the pacing. It’s not exactly funny, but there were some scenes that made me laugh out loud, and the whole Anaander situation was as funny and weird as it was tragic, which I really appreciated. About the pacing, this is one of the very few books that kept me awake until late at night, because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. It’s not that suspenseful, it’s not stressful, it doesn’t rely on shocking plot twists, it’s just really engaging and I didn’t want to put it down.
My rating: ★★★★★