There are elements of traditional phantasy in this book. The world of Neveryon Delaney builds is a complex, intruguing place that combines varieties oThere are elements of traditional phantasy in this book. The world of Neveryon Delaney builds is a complex, intruguing place that combines varieties of geography with a vast diversity of human conditions – from the capital city of Kolhari which changes before our eyes (and through the eyes of several of its inhabitants), all the way to the Ulvayan islands, themselves the home of at least two distinct tribes of people. And there are dragons too.
Yet, apart from the unfamiliar place, Delaney does something amazing. This collection of five novellas reads more like an exploration into alternatives (reflections?) of human history, or even a possible (if lost) part of actual history. It fictionalizes momentous events, such as the invention of writing, or the introduction of money in a barter economy and traces the intricate and small-scale changes of such events that begin at the personal level but that, over time, lead to radical social overhaul.
This is my kind of story. At one level, we follow each tale and gradually develop a feel for each of the characters in the story. At another level entirely, we are treated to reflections on human nature, the meaning of life, political intrigue of the most astute and professional kind, and revelations about the nature of love and desire. And quite separately from all that, Delaney’s language is measured and thoughtful, his sentences alternatively sparkling with wit, or meandering through a complex maze, to express thoughts with clarity and vividness that is a true pleasure to anyone who appreciates well-crafted language.
To me, this volume offers above all a reflection on slavery as a human condition. Slavery is ubiquitous in each of the tales and forms the narrative arch along which the lives of the characters develop. Each of the tales can be read separately and it would stand on its own. However, taken in the sequence presented, they form a progression that provides depth and allows us to see the growth (or degeneration) of some characters, to experience wonder and triumph and sorrow with them. Gorgik, enslaved as a child and, by mere chance, brought to the palace in Kolhari as the pleasure slave of the Vizerine, eventually gains his freedom. We learn that he becomes rich. We would be tempted to think that this would conclude his tale – a kind of “rags-to-riches,” “slavery-to-freedom” narrative. But Delaney surprises us by tracing a deeper pattern in the soul of the former slave – an unconscious one, perhaps, but a pattern following a beautiful logic. First, he meets his future lover, Small Sarg, whom he originally buys as a slave. In the shortest of the five tales – and the one perhaps most fraught with portents – master and slave become lovers, and Delaney offers a startling reflection on desire and love. When Sarg questions Gorgik on the necessity to keep and use the slave’s collar (even if Gorgik agrees that they can alternate wearing it), Gorgik replies, “There are people I have met in my travels who cannot eat food unless it has been held long over fire; and there are others, like me, who cannot love without some mark of possession.” Later, in a different tale, Gorgik will elaborate, “We are both free men. For the boy the collar is symbolic – of our mutual affection, our mutual protection. For myself – it is sexual – a necessary part in the pattern that allows both action and orgasm to manifest themselves within the single circle of desire.” This middle tale is also the place in which Delaney comes closest to offering an emotional evaluation of a slave’s condition. “I am already dead,” Sarg says to his Master by way of explanation of his behavior. Coming as it does from the mouth of a mere boy, this statement, equating slavery with a form of death is perhaps the most poignant emotional climax of the book.
But it does not end there. For Gorgik and Sarg begin a war on slavery. This is the story reserved for the final tale in the book. Aside from the fact that Delaney creates an awesome allegory in which a gay couple (think closet, oppression, a form of slavery to social dogma) leads a rebellion to free others from oppression – and there is a great beauty in that (and parallels to the actual history of the establishment of the first Athenian democracy) – Delaney offers more condemnations of slavery here, from a different perspective. In imploring slaves to be free once he had removed the guards and opened the doors, we can hear the urgency in Small Sarg’s voice, “I want you to understand that you’re free and I want you to move. Fools, fools, don’t you know that to stay slaves is to stay fools?”
This then, it a book that begins simply but gradually grows into a full-throated condemnation of slavery and oppression. It accomplishes this while building a complex world and giving us intriguing glimpses of other human lives and conditions. In the process, it also demonstrates how power diminishes and corrupts. Yes, in the expected tradition of fantasy, there is an epic struggle between good and evil. But evil is not personalized here as some demonic individual. Rather, it is diffused, pervasive … almost difficult to identify. Delaney here (remember that this reads like a possible history) creates an uncomfortable parallel with contemporary society where the evils of the system (racial injustice or rigid class barriers) are diffused and seem impersonal. But in this parallel, we also see the value of personal choice, of personal action. Yes, an individual can change history. Yes, even a diffused and impersonal evil can be defeated by love and determination. I like this optimistic vision. I like it a lot. ...more
There is so much in this book, it is a wonder Ann Leckie managed to pack it all in a mere 380 pages. T**spoiler alert** Nothing short of spectacular.
There is so much in this book, it is a wonder Ann Leckie managed to pack it all in a mere 380 pages. The book felt a lot longer – not, mind you, because it is boring or slow-paced – but because of the way the author manages, almost imperceptibly, to integrate a variety of themes here that make this volume seem by turns a swash-buckling adventure, a cloak-and-dagger intrigue, a love story, and yes, a philosophical treatise. Few books come to mind that pack such a powerful punch for the relatively narrow circle of main characters that Leckie works with.
To me, the most powerful overarching theme is the human psyche’s incapacity to remain whole (wholesome?) in the wake of perpetrating acts of violence and cruelty. Yes, Anaander Mianaai, the seemingly all-powerful Lord of the Radch, believes that the defiance of Garsedd justifies a total annihilation of the entire civilization. But the price is her (his?) own sanity. She tries to become dissociated with this apocalyptic destruction and, in the process, develops a sort of multiple personality disorder. Of course, Mianaai does not admit to herself that this has happened… but her numerous cloned bodies take on different sides of the split personality and begin to wage a quiet – and deadly – war against each other. Listen, the very concept of this had me breaking in goosebumps once I realized what was happening. Hundreds… thousands of identical bodies of the Lord… with no way to know which side of the personality disorder each of them support. Anaander Mianaai, over three thousand years old, ruler of the all-powerful Radch… and fragmented into warring factions … with nobody around having a clue.
Then, of course, there is Justice of Toren. Both the ship and its One Esk Nineteen (I know, the terminology is involved but once you become familiar with it, it is really neat). The idea of a vast, powerful, ancient (2000+ years old) AI having multiple, formerly human bodies as its sensors and troops it directs with a single mind is as awesome as it is disturbing. The fact that Ann Leckie manages to convey what that looks and feels like from the perspective of the ship without, in the process, losing focus in the narrative is one of the real testaments to her power of expression. And again, the consequence of violence … when the ship is forced to kill one of its favorite lieutenants unjustly, the reaction is violent and unpredictable, as it is, in the end, heartbreaking. Breq, the last remnant of all that power, of that entire vast mind, the last repository of all the memories is the unlikely protagonist here… Unlikely, because as a former ancillary she is perhaps not expected to take initiative… she was, after all, a mere drone… It is in the improbable intersection of human shell and a vastly intelligent machine mind (AI) that Lecke finds humanity and finds it so poignantly as to make the actual humans in the novel seem, at times, like two-dimensional cartoon imagery.
The two storylines perfectly complement each other in providing background and detail and, when they combine about two-thirds of the way in, we are already in the midst of an interstellar adventure, thousands of years in the making. I simply do not understand critics who say the storyline is a) muddled (it isn’t! there is a vast difference between muddle and complexity) or b) slow-moving (if by slow-moving one means there is not enough violence or epic battles, I beg to object that even on that account the critics are merely wrong, because there is quite enough of that in the book, but also, that narrative does not have to be all big explosions to be engrossing or satisfying).
A word about the gender ambiguity. Yes, female pronouns are used throughout (with a few exceptions). However, I did not find this disorienting or see it as any sort of gimmickry. I found it liberating. Too often when I read fiction, foreknowledge of gender leads to certain expectations of behavior (handsome hero expected to go after beautiful girl etc.). Not knowing the gender of the characters in advance and discovering it only later allows for perceiving all those aspects of human relationships that often remain submerged in gender-defined sexual tension elsewhere. As a literary device this is brilliant. It is also very eye-opening.
In the end, psychological and philosophical depth aside, this is above all an adventure, and a love story. Leckie pulls it off masterfully. A well-deserved five stars. Looking forward to reading the next one. ...more