Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 410 pages, C$17,00 pb, ISBN 978-0316246620

I went into this novel with the best of intentions.

For one thing, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has, in the first few months of 2014, accumulated an impressive shelf of honors. In between winning the Nebula, BSFA, Clarke, Locus (First novel) awards and getting a much-remarked Hugo nomination, Ancillary Justice has become one of the best-received debut novels in the SF field since Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. As someone who’s always on the lookout for the hot new SF writers, Ancillary Justice earned a spot on my to-read list early on, and cemented its acquisition the moment the Hugo nominations were announced.

So, to repeat: I went into this novel with the best of intentions.

And to be clear: I think Ancillary Justice is a good novel.

Thus, the above being said: Wow, I had a hard time getting into the book.

Ancillary Justice is billed as a far-future space opera, and that’s eventually correct. It involves a future in which a vast empire has conquered a good chunk of the galaxy, via AIs being incarnated in repurposed human bodies (the titular ancillaries), a leader splitting herself into multiple instance in order to rule the empire, fancy weapons, big starships, space stations and the rest of the hardware that is expected of space operas.

But it takes a while to get there: As Ancillary Justice opens, we’re stuck with the lead character on a cold isolated planet, nursing an old acquaintance back to health after a coincidental encounter. Flashbacks to nearly twenty years earlier progressively fill in the back-story of our protagonist, an AI fragment seeking justice for what happened to her and her ship.

So it goes for a long time. A really long time. I’m not the dedicated omnivorous reader I used to be, and novels that don’t immediately grab me are now far more of an annoyance than they were before. But even by my previous standards, Ancillary Justice takes forever to develop into something that I’d consider interesting, and even longer to become compelling reading. By the end of the novel I was all-in, but it felt as if much of the novel was build-up while waiting for something to happen.

I’m not going to pretend that this personal reaction should be considered a universal assessment. I know, for instance, that I’m really not interested in the kind of gender-recoding that Leckie commits to in the early pages of the novel (the protagonist can’t easily distinguish between genders and doesn’t really see the difference, so everyone is labelled female), and I have a similar lack of interest into many of the elements (songs, multiple temporal strands, fine prose, etc.) that give personality to the novel. Much of what specifically attracted other reviewers to this book were lost on me. I had to wait 40% in the novel before the back-story became clear, and 80% until the present-day action became earnestly interesting. I suspect that this may make me a bad reader; I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not reading with the same concentration than I used to. I am, mind you, a bit surprised at the tenor of the acclaim that the book received: Pacing issues aside, Ancillary Justice makes competent use of well-worn tropes, but I found the idea density to be a bit on the low side for space operas.

Thus I come away from Ancillary Justice with the sense of having done my duty as a genre SF reader, but not as having had any fun. This doesn’t make Ancillary Justice any less of a success as the novel it meant to be: it’s written competently, put together with skill and is a self-assured contemporary representative of the genre. It’s not a bad nominee for the Hugo. But as for its impact, I remain underwhelmed.

Ah well; you can’t love them all.

[August 2014: Ancillary Justice has won the Hugo Award, sweeping whatever awards remained to be swept.]

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