Review: Ancillary Justice (Paperback)

I approached this book with high hopes – it was very solidly recommended to me, and seemed conceptually interesting. I judge books almost wholly on their individual merit, not according to their perceived literary value; I get that Ancillary Justice was making a statement, and was recognised for that. Plus, with all those awards on the cover… what could possibly go wrong?!

Unfortunately though, Ancillary Justice was a big, boring swing and a miss. While I appreciated the author’s efforts on a conceptual/literal level, it didn’t really translate to the nitty gritty. Conceptually, Ancillary Justice is themed around the idea of a galactic empire known as the Radch whose ships, ancient and sentient, with their own AIs, are able to field a personal hive-mind of ‘ancillaries’ – the converted populations of those worlds the Radch has ‘annexed’ who didn’t toe the line. Ancillary Justice follows the story of Breq, the last ancillary of a spaceship known as the Justice of Toren, on a quest to avenge its own destruction.

This sounds good on summary, but in a 350-page novel, it’s not translated to an effective story at all. Structurally, Ancillary Justice switched perspective each chapter; to the present ‘quest’ with Breq as the sole human embodiment of the Justice of Toren, and the next around 20 years earlier, slowly building up to the events that led to the spaceship’s destruction and, ergo, Breq’s quest.

Firstly, in those ‘backstory’ chapters, having a protagonist with twenty points of view is, to use a modern vernacular, “hella confusing”. The prose is a strange bastardised hybrid of first-person narrative and third person. First-person with an omniscient narrator? I found it a genuine challenge to keep up. I’d rather the author picked a perspective and stuck with it; instead, the narrator became omniscient through having twenty personality-less vessels giving an all-seeing eye to every scene.

My main concern with the prose across the entirety of the novel is that it comes across as dull, mechanical and clinical, though I expect that reflects the non-human, artificial nature of the protagonist’s consciousness. But the main character’s lack of personality pervades the prose itself. Breq’s characterisation, while easier to follow as a single entity, is devoid of personality. Simply put, emotion.exe could not be found. Breq’s cold and humourless demeanour, coupled with an ancillary’s predilection against expressing any emotion make her/it a boring and uninteresting protagonist to channel this story through. The only responses Breq seems to have to other characters is to either “lie” or to “gesture”. Other characters, even the officer Breq finds after being frozen for a thousand years, Seivarden, lacks any appreciable development bar a love of tea and bloodlust. Other characters, even ones that the spaceship AI (that said, some of the Station and Ship AIs do express a fun, passive-aggressive personality, though it’s riddled with inconsistencies of ability I believe exist to serve the plot) interacts with a great deal, feel as if they exist on paper only; there’s scant description of what they look like, and certainly little exploration of their motives. They just exist to, well, talk.

In the chapters set before the Justice of Toren’s destruction, and in the Breq chapters too, largely, the book becomes almost Tolkien-esque (spoiler: I find Tolkien unreadable) in the amount of meandering and, ultimately, pointless conversation the characters engage in. All they do is talk, talk, talk! There’s a great deal of backstory and world-building taking place, but the characters discuss political intrigue in the Radch universe as if the reader has taken an A-level in the backstory prior to starting the book. There’s a few scant pointers early on but these are easily forgotten about, leaving me confused as to what these characters are even talking about for pages at a time. It becomes a baffling and unrewarding mess – how can I care about this political intrigue and universe when I have no reference to the importance of it all?

The plot itself is, frankly, glacial. There’s an acute action deficit for the first 80% of Ancillary Justice, and when things do begin to motor, it’s all too late. The conclusion rests upon Breq’s confrontation with the Lord of the Radch, who is also a hive-mind that has gone insane and declared war on itself, and even then the book, honestly, fails to deliver on an epic finale. I won’t spoil the plot (there’s so little of it anyway), but on finishing the book I was left not hoping for more, but thanking the sweet Lord that it was finally over.

This book also decides to base the Radch empire on the notion that people and language is genderless; accordingly (to Tumblr’s delight, I imagine), all characters are assumed to be and addressed with female pronouns, which wouldn’t be a problem except that, firstly, this makes visualising the characters on the threadbare descriptions nigh-on impossible, and secondly, confuses the reader when the pronouns for a given character change from female to male in the space of a single sentence. There’s no reference point on which to hinge the characters.

I do, however, admire the spirit of this choice – it’s nice to be able to avoid the assumptions about masculinity and feminity and the character traits so often, and incorrectly, assigned thus, but Ancillary Justice’s Tumblr-friendly way of creating this led a long way to my overall impression that the book is a confusing, and almost-unreadable mess, which is a shame as I think, conceptually, there’s a ton to be able to play with. Ultimately, I feel, Ancillary Justice just took a too literary bent with the execution of its particular story. I prefer my fiction to be thoughtful and deep, yes, but there’s got to be a nice bit of plot and action driving it forward.

To unfortunately conclude, I can say that I did not particularly enjoy Ancillary Justice, despite a promising premise. I endured a confusing and ultimately boring narrative and dry prose that threatened to put me to sleep, along with a quest that is forgettable and a protagonist that is unlikeable, leave me with little other recourse than to say my journey stops with the inaugural book in this series.

Buy Ancillary Justice on Amazon UK

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