Nathaniel's Reviews > Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
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Jun 20, 15

Read in June, 2015

NOTE: I feel bad changing my rating and my review after so many people have liked this review, but one of the commenters below convinced me that the central arguments I made in my original 2-star review were invalid. And, at risk of breaking the entire Internet, I decided to listen to a reasonable argument and evidence and consider changing my mind. In addition, I decided to reread (listen to, actually) the book in preparation for reading the sequel Ancillary Sword as my due diligence as a 2015 Hugo voter.

My original read of the book was in Oct 2013. My re-read was in June 2015. Based on the re-read I changed my rating from a 2 to a 3, and I'd give it 3.5 if I could.

Reasoning:

Breq isn't as much an idiot as I made her out to be. Her plan actually did make more sense. In particular, she always had the ambition of unmasking the hidden civil war (for one thing) and when she was caught and detected it wasn't by the station AI but by the emperor him/herself (for another). So the plot is really not nearly as bad as I suggested.

In addition, the world-building is way better than I gave credit for initially. I was overly irate at the political aspects--and they are there and cumbersome and silly--but there's a lot more going on and it's actually quite good.

I'm still not what you'd call a fan, but the book deserves better than my original rating. For the sake of transparency, however, I'm leaving that original, unedited (since my re-read, at least) review below.

-- Original Review --

There’s a simple life lesson that I still haven’t really learned, and it is this: being good at making art doesn’t actually mean that you’re any good at teaching, explaining, or critiquing art.

The first example of this in my life was comparing a critique of the album “Closer to the Edge” (by the band Yes) with actual interviews of the band itself. The critique, which was written in an email to me from a friend of my father’s who is a music buff and a scholar of the poet Milton, was incredible. It explained the lyrics and musical themes of the album in ways that opened my eyes to its depth, complexity, and brilliance. Listening to the band members try to explain the meaning of their own songs, however, was nothing short of traumatic. They veered between banal and saccharine on the one hand, and flatly incoherent on the other. It didn’t make me stop enjoying their music, but it did make me stop listening to or reading their interviews.

The second example of this was the recommendation given by Jerry Holkins (the writer of web comic Penny-Arcade) for Karen Traviss’s first Star Wars novels. I greatly admire Holkins as a writer. A lot of his blogging lacks polish and refinement (he doesn’t know when to self-edit, or perhaps even what that concept means), but his skill and passion are unmistakable and his voice is incredibly unique. He is, in a way, a hero of mine. (Even though a lot of what he writes is, quite frankly, offensive crap.)

It had been several years since the incident with Yes’s “Closer to the Edge” and I didn’t really connect the two. I just figured if Jerry Holkins was unreservedly endorsing a writer then I had to get on that stat. I went out and bought not one but two of her novels right away.

They were terrible. Not the absolute worst franchise fiction I’ve ever read but, well, if that sounds like a good example of the expression “damning with faint praise” then you’re absolutely right. I forced myself to finish the first one because this was the time before Red Mars and so I still lived by a code of finishing every novel I started. But I didn’t bother to even start the second. There was nothing in novels—not a single thing—that gave me any hope for her future writing.

Well, almost another decade passed before I fell into this trap again. This time the source was John Scalzi. I figured that whereas Holkins is primarily a blogger who was endorsing a sci fi author, John Scalzi actually was a sci fi author himself, so perhaps his endorsement should carry more weight. Based on his praise, the categorization of Ancillary Justice as “space opera”, the premise (which described a sentient ship thousands of years old) and the awesome cover art, I bought it. (Honest admission: if you put a John Harris illustration on a book, I will almost invariably buy it. I'm not saying it's smart, but it's true.)

Well, this is three strikes. I think I’ve finally learned my lesson that the creative skills for making art and the analytic skills for reviewing and criticizing art have about as much in common as plumbing and playing the piano. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as someone who is both a good writer and a good critic. There are probably some good plumbers who can also tickle the ole ivories. I’m just saying that I fully recognize that creating good art doesn’t make you in any way a reliable source for evaluating art.

So what’s wrong with Ancillary Justice? There’s actually one essential problem, but it’s a doozy: nothing the major characters do makes any sense whatsoever.

The entire story is motivated by basically two decisions the protagonist makes, neither of which make the least bit of sense. First, she decides to assassinate someone who has literally thousands of bodies / incarnations spread out over a good chunk of the galaxy using—I kid you not—a handgun. She spends 20 years tracking down the special handgun so that she can go kill this person knowing full well that, while she’ll probably be able to kill one or two bodies, it will have no significance whatsoever.

No plausible chance of success, and no consequence even if successful: it’s the stupidest plan ever conceived.

Now, you could invest this hopeless and desperate plan with all kinds of emotional tension or rich existential gravitas, but Ann Leckie doesn't go for that. When confronted by the stupidity of her plan, the protagonist just shrugs. Which sort of makes you, as the reader, want her to get blown up to save you the effort of finishing the book. If she doesn't care: why should you? There's stoic, and then there's pathologically apathetic.

Of course “plan” is kind of a generous description of the protagonist's intended course of actions. This isn’t exactly Mission Impossible. Her theory is: 1. Acquire the magical gun and then 2. Gain an audience with the target and then 3. Shoot the target. The problem is that the target is surrounded by a near omniscient AI who easily detects the plan ahead of time (which doesn’t surprise the protagonist) thus compounding the idiocy. It also renders the primary motivation of the first half of the book moot. Why do we care about spending 2 decades tracking down the magical gun that can get past all the sensors if the AI around the target can perfectly easily spot the protagonist herself? In the book, she ends up needing to lay low for months to get that audience, but the station AI identifies her in just 2-3 days. So, once again, it's literally the worst "plan" ever.

If this doesn’t sound like compelling drama, it isn’t.

The second major decision is for the protagonist to save the life of some random dude that she finds in the snow and then keep him around more or less indefinitely despite the fact that he’s an obnoxious spoiled brat, a drug addict, and a lying thief. She also jumps off a bridge to save his life at one point, coming damn near close to killing herself. Didn’t she have some big epic plan to fail at assassinating the villain? Yeah, but sometimes she just does inexplicable stuff because, plot.

A lot of stories struggle with getting their characters to do what the author needs them to do for believable reasons supported by internal motivation. In Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie doesn’t struggle. She doesn’t even try.

Since his recent Hugo win (sadly for Redshirts, which is definitely his least impressive work since his practice novel Agent To The Stars), Scalzi has been criticized even more for his politics. I’ve definitely noticed that he’s altered the entire course of the Old Man’s War universe (or at least, chosen to emphasize new aspects of it) in order to convey a much more left-friendly political tone in more recent works (especially The Human Division), but I don’t want to try and get in Scalzi’s head. Maybe he’s pandering, maybe he’s frustrated that he doesn’t get credit for the beliefs he really has, or maybe it’s just the artistic direction he was already going in. I don’t know, but it’s is odd that Ancillary Justice, which he chose to support, is also such an overtly political work.

The political gimmick, and it really is just a gimmick, is that the viewpoint character comes from a future human society that is just off-the-shelf imitation Roman Empire (a common sci fi stereotype) except that they have also totally rejected gender essentialism. That’s basically it.

The rejection is so complete that their language has lost gendered pronouns and so everyone is referred to as “she” by the main character, who is unable to tell male and female human beings apart. Now, linguistically, that’s not actually far fetched. Hungarian, which I speak passably, also has no gendered pronouns. But the reason I dismiss it as pretty banal politics is that there really isn’t any definition to the primary race other than this one really specific detail. (As a corollary, the only modesty taboo they have is that hands should always be covered by gloves which is another strictly non-gendered detail.)

I’m not really sure that this ploy has a real purpose other than to “raise awareness." Mostly, it just seems like wish fulfillment for a particular kind of feminist that would like to see the eradication of all gender distinctions.

Now, my response might seem reactionary, but here’s the thing: gender can be a legitimate and fascinating topic for science fiction. See: The Left Hand of Darkness. That’s an incredible book, both in general and also for its thoughtful and probing analysis of gender relationships and assumptions. (It’s not conservative, either.) I also just finished The Handmaid's Tale, which is also steeped in gender concerns, also fabulously well-written, and which I also loved. (Also not conservative.) So I’m not opposed to either the topic or to a liberal perspective on it. What I’m opposed to is laziness. Those books didn't just raise the issue, they actually delved in. Ancillary Justice just sort of threw this one really extreme plot device at the reader and then walked away. Clearly it's designed to make you, as a reader, reconsider gender but it's just a gimmick. (Like I said: plenty of real-world languages get along just fine without gendered pronouns. This isn't some earth-shattering invention.)

I see there’s a sequel out already or coming out soon. I can’t be bothered to find out which. It wasn’t as painful to read as Red Mars, but that’s about all I can say in its favor.
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10/19/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 51) (51 new)


message 1: by Dan (new)

Dan Upton Goodreads: where Nathaniel writes novels to critique novels. ;)


Nathaniel Dan wrote: "Goodreads: where Nathaniel writes novels to critique novels. ;)"

LOL, you know me so well, Dan!


Nathaniel Ah ha! The review just got a like! Looks like someone enjoyed my novel, Dan! ;-)


Wolverina The amazing bit about this review is how well it spends more time critiquing and discussing both John Scalzi and the reviewer rather than the book in question.

All while deliberately misgendering characters


message 5: by Jonathan13 (new)

Jonathan13 Good review, heh I also speak some Magyar. Szia barat :)


Chris Your critique of the protagonist's motivation and plans leaves me in suspense as to whether you read the last third of the book.


Nathaniel Honan tanultal magyarul, Jonathan13?


Nathaniel Chris,

Let me put you out of your suspense: I did in deed read the whole thing. And I will grant you that the concluding action was, in and of itself, not bad. But it couldn't redeem the story.

The whole problem, as I said, is that the protagonist has no discernible motivation for any of her decisions. None whatsoever. She has an utterly asinine plan to assassinate somebody that would, at its best, succeed in basically giving the villain a darn good toenail clipping. That's "success," mind you, but the plan is far too stupid to get anywhere near success and instead the hero (using the term loosely) is unsurprisingly discovered MONTHS before her clever scheme could have been put in action.

Meanwhile, she's dragging some other random dude around because PLOT. She risks her life saving him because PLOT. (Now, he actually seems like an interesting character, but the story isn't about him. Sadly.)

So, at the point where the action begins in the last third, everything that has happened so far either (A) makes no sense or (B) is really stupid. But then a lot of action happens and the hero ends up looking rather heroical and accidentally finds out all sort of plot-relevant stuff and saves the day and kicks off a kind of schizophrenic palace coup / civil war and THAT stuff is all very interesting.

The problem is that it's like you dropped Bozo the Clown into a Tom Clancy thriller. The thriller parts are great, but Bozo kind of ruins the tone. And plot. And theme. (Not to mention you had to wade through 2/3rds of Bozo-focused nonsense to get to the thriller.)

So yeah: I read the last third. I actually think the whole setup is very, very cool. But keep in mind what actually happens. After uncovering / kickstarting the cool thriller plotline, our hero *abruptly takes off in a totally different direction*.

I'm sure that she'll get roped back into the main plotline eventually, but there's every indication that it will be as completely accidental and nonsensical as the first time around.

As a work of modern art, this is quite compelling. Imagine an action movie where, instead of a competent and driven action star, you had clumsy fool but then everyone ELSE happened to slip on banana peels at just the right time so the hero won anyway. As a critique about illusions of our ability to control our destiny, it could really work. Spun as dark humor, it could even be really funny. But played straight it's just weird. At best.


message 9: by David (new)

David Is there any chance that you'd be willing to share you friend's critique of Close to the Edge? I find I'm always defending the band to my hipster friend.


Nathaniel David wrote: "Is there any chance that you'd be willing to share you friend's critique of Close to the Edge? I find I'm always defending the band to my hipster friend."

That email was sent nearly 15 years ago to an account I haven't used regularly in 10 years. I'll see if I can dig it up, but chances aren't great. :-)


message 11: by David (new)

David Nathaniel wrote: "David wrote: "Is there any chance that you'd be willing to share you friend's critique of Close to the Edge? I find I'm always defending the band to my hipster friend."

That email was sent nearly ..."



Thank you Nathaniel. That's very considerate of you!


message 12: by Jonathan13 (new)

Jonathan13 Nathaniel wrote: "Honan tanultal magyarul, Jonathan13?"

Heh my girlfriend is Hungarian. I tried to impress her by learning it, boy I bit off more than I can chew :O

Te is?


message 13: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike This is the very definition of tl;dr.


Chris C An interesting parallel between the book that you reviewed and your review is that they're much the same in that around 50% of both works are un-intelligible, plodding, irrelevant and should most likely be skipped but the latter parts of both writings are enjoyable and actually make very good points.

I do agree with the majority of your review in that the motivations of the characters are barely explained and except for the length of their names, one could easily exchange any of the characters given how little the author goes into their descriptions and development. However, I loved the world-building and the richness of the tapestry that the author weaves is enough for me to appreciate the book's setting. Did you not like the different backgrounds and descriptions of the world that or do you have any parts of the book that you found likable?

Lastly, I really find the idea of ships as characters in space operas to be fun concepts but one that veers to stuff-already-done in the form of Culture novels; the author's version is interesting because instead of pure AIs, these one inhabit biological constructs for some reason instead of robots (which would be a lot easier to maintain). Given your predilection for purchasing novels with John Harris' covers, I hope that if the sequel has another such cover, you'll be able to post another solid review despite your lack of interest.


message 15: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Reeves I had to make an account just to respond to this absurdly inaccurate review. I mean, a review is an opinion, but if your opinions are based on complete misunderstanding, they carry a lot less weight.

It's as if you need every single thing spelled out for you and are incapable of grasping anything with any subtlety. Although the "current" timeline starts the book, it only takes up maybe 20 total pages for the first half of the book. The rest is almost all flashback, which is the entire foundation of the motivations for the main character. In case you missed the first half of the book, *that is the motivation*. It makes clear that although the ancillaries are mostly uncaring robots, this particular one has some differences. This one grows attached to its commander. There is the dissonance between being a machine that just does what it's told (including murdering people willy nilly), and doing what is just and beneficial.

I don't know, you had to be pretty dense of have some other motivation not to notice that the first half of the book *was* the setup for why the protagonist was on her mission.

Also your critique of the plan itself seems a little shallow. As soon as the plan was revealed, the problems you bring up were addressed. Maybe you missed that when reading only every third chapter, which it sounds like you did. Yes she expected she would die quickly, and understands there are thousands of copies of her target. But the point was to get a message out that all the copies and many citizens would see, as there was clearly a schism in the personality of her target and in the opinions of the public. The point was to start something since that's the best any individual can hope to do against such a powerful empire.

Your critique of the gender issues in the book also seem off. Is it your opinion that there needs to be a clearly spelled out reason for some aspect of life to be different in sci-fi? If it's been done before, then maybe it's OK for it to be a simple fact of life that doesn't need pages of excuses for being the way things are. It's just another interesting fact about this particular future universe.

The one critique I can see for this book is that the ending may not be as satisfying as it could be. I mean, it's not the longest book out there by far, but it would have been nice if more was resolved. Although I think, really, a lot WAS resolved.


Nathaniel John-

I'm tickled that you made an account just to respond, but your response indicates that you didn't understand the criticism.

You spent time explaining why Breq wants revenge, but that wasn't something I had any questions about. That motivation was perfectly clear.

The problem is that the plan she came up with had zero chance of success. She spends 20 years hunting for a MacGuffin so that she can use it to get caught months before getting close to her target which, if she was able to get close to, wouldn't really do any good because it's just one instance of thousands of instances.

You talk about her willingness to die, but that's beside the point. Going down in flames after your grand symbolic gesture is one thing, but Breq knows from the outset she has basically zero chance of actually getting to make such a grand, symbolic gesture AT ALL. And she's right: her request for an audience is put in a backlog of a month+ and station security IDs her in a matter of a couple of days.

Worst. Scheme. Ever.

None of this has anything to do with confusion about why she wants revenge. I got that. But her plan makes no sense. And it *could* have been some existential statement of bleak despair or even of raucus rebellion (as Camus said, "We must imagine Sisyphus happy!") but it wasn't. There was no psychological insight into why she had decided to waste 20 years of her life on a plot that wouldn't accomplish squat.

This only gets worse, of course, when after all this build up about how she's going to go and get pointlessly killed without accomplishing anything BECAUSE PLOT the next think you know she's jumping off cliffs risking her life to save some guy who (1) is annoying and (2) actually poses even more risk to her plot.

These are serious problems with the narrative. As for the gender issues: all I'm saying is that if someone is going to write message fiction they should (1) have a great story first and (2) have a message that is interesting. This book had neither.

Oddly enough, the one part you didn't like (the ending) was the only part of the book that I thought was really good. The plot about the bad guy having split instances was really rather interesting, and the action was great. At that point there was a good story. If anyone but Breq had been in it, I'd be buying the sequel.


Jonathan Dowland I interpreted her half baked plan to be part of her subconscious programming.


Nathaniel Jonathan-

Yeah, from some of the folks who complain about my review I'm getting the impression that one reason people liked the book was because they just made up their own explanation to fill in the gaping holes. And if that makes people enjoy the book more: good for them. (Seriously.)

But it doesn't really change how I feel about it because there isn't one, unified explanation I hear from people that makes me think there's something in the text I'm missing. Just a bunch of disparate, ad hoc explanations that differ from reader to reader.

I still think the fundamental concept is pretty awesome, so it doesn't surprise me that some readers come up with better variants than what is actually there. (Sort of like how sometimes listeners will invent better song lyrics than the original for famous songs when they think they are just trying to hear what was really there all along.)


Jonathan Dowland I don't think I'm inventing to fill the gap, I recall a few hints in that direction. But I'm not going to go and dig out page refs. At best I'd agree it was too subtle. I can't quite decide whether the desire to save Siervarden was some similar buried contingency, which would also explain his/her reappearance, and might be explored more in a sequel... or perhaps that was an aspect of the protagonist's humanity that was unexpected to her. Underplayed in either case.

I think this bothered me less than you because we have very different tastes. By coincidence I've recently re-read "Red Mars", which I loved both times :)


message 20: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark Foley I just finished the book, and I really have to defend her plan. I think, based on your description, you just lost interest and skimmed over the last third of the book, after she arrived at her ultimate destination. Her plan was not just to kill 1 or 2 bodies of the leader, just for emotional satisfaction, although this is what she told the person who gave her the gun.

The idea was to use this gun to kill one of the bodies (that part was for emotional satisfaction) and ensure that she had the full attention of EVERY part of the leader, who would desperately need to know where she got this gun. She would then use this full attention to force the leader to confront and admit that parts of her were at war within herself, and spark off an entire civil war, which she totally succeeded at.

This is not my personal interpretation, this is outright stated in the text, which is why I assume you must have been skimming by this point.

My interpretation of why she decided to save the person she found (and this is personal interpretation) is because of the guilt she still felt over killing her previous lieutenant. Even though she never liked the person she saves, she still can't bear to see another one of her officers die when she can save them, even if she doesn't realize why that's what she is doing. I saw it as completely in character for her.


Nathaniel Mark-

The problem with your interpretation is that it doesn't fit the timeline. Now, I am a bit rusty (having read this months ago), but I didn't skim it at the time. I did read it. And the timeline goes like this:

1. There's an accident that blows up Breq's ship, and she's basically the only survivor.
2. She spends 20 years looking for a gun to get revenge, and at this point her plan is (as described in my review) utterly stupid.
3. She also randomly saves this one dude she doesn't even like because reasons.
4. She gets to the station and her plan, as expected is a total failure.
5. However, just before the final act, she gets NEW INFORMATION about how the leader is actually at war with herself, and comes up with a NEW PLAN.

That new plan is the one that you like. It makes sense. It has a chance of success. And it makes for a decent final act.

But there's a name for a sudden imposition of a new character, or new information, or a new invention that fundamentally changes the plot and rescues the hero: deus ex machina. And that's what we've got. All of a sudden--and absolutely NOT to the credit of the virtue or intelligence of the protagonist--there's some random new intel that lets her shift from stupid plan to smart plan.

Does that make the last 20 years (and first 2/3rds) of the text retroactively make sense? Nope. Does it retroactively provide character motivation for what Breq was doing *prior* to the new info? Nope. In short: there's a fairly decent final third tacked onto an abysmal first 2/3rds. And, as a cohesive whole, it just doesn't work.

As for your interpretation of saving that other character: it's fine, as interpretations go, but it's not in the text. It's not even clear (from the text) that Breq is capable of the kind of personal preference you base your theory on. Remember: she's just some soulless drone. Except she likes to whistle.

She is basically the same as Echo from the first season of Dollhouse: a blank spot where a character is supposed to go. It's possible to color your own version in there, but it's just your invention. I'd like it if the author had provided one.


message 22: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark Foley If you recall, it wasn't an accident that blew up the ship, the leader intentionally blew up her ship because she found out her other self had already approached and suborned Breq. That is when she found out that the leader was at war with herself, 20 years before the book starts.

You, the reader, do not find this out until about 2/3rds through the book, but chronologically in the universe, Breq knew about this the whole time. You can complain about the author hiding this information from the reader initially, making it look like she has a stupid plan, but that is very different complaint than the one you made.

I did admit that the 2nd point was purely my interpretation. I do believe it is what the author intended, but I have no problem with your complaint about it, I just wanted to throw in my interpretation.


James The first 7 paragraphs of your review could be thrown out and it would make a lot more sense. Comparing Scalzi and Pern to this book is just a waste of space.

I'm well into this book and though it's "original" to the extreme, is not that bad, if quirky. Review is in bad need of editing, IMO.


message 24: by Jo (last edited Aug 09, 2014 05:46PM) (new)

Jo Phan COMMENT INCLUDES SPOILERS

Can't tell you how pleased I was to encounter this review - I was beginning to think I was the only one who was annoyed by the obvious plot holes (or even noticed them!) The worldbuilding was certainly interesting and I liked the main character and the ending. However, the protagonist saving the snobby, unlikeable, drug-addicted lieutenant and subsequently shlepping her from place to place, and risking her life and being diverted from the main mission in a seemingly futile attempt to save her life made no sense whatsoever except, as you note, that the author needed her as a plot device later on. The protagonist herself repeats a few times that she doesn't understand why she's doing it.

Similarly, the mission itself made no sense: it was never made clear what difference it would make to kill the manifestation of the tyrant in the palace as opposed to the body she'd *already* killed after being forced to shoot Awn. On the contrary, seems like there would be more numerous manifestations at the palace than anywhere else, and more control over what communications got out, so it didn't make any sense that the act would somehow have ramifications that would alert the rest of civilization.

Frankly, it wouldn't have taken much to fix these problems: the lieutenant could have been snobby and obnoxious but done something to put the main character in her perceived debt, or the main character needed to be accompanied by a citizen to accomplish part of her plan, or... And maybe the palace tyrant manifestation was a more important component than the other ones, for example.

However, the existing setup never addressed either of those points sufficiently. I also thought that starting the book both by introducing the Radch civilization and the interactions with the very different Ors civilization was awkward and could have been a barrier for some readers to get past all the religion and social more explanations into the meat of the book.

There is a taut interesting universe and protagonist in this book struggling to get out from under layers of distractions and McGuffins.


James After reading your meandering review I can only say "you didn't get it."


James Well said, Mark Foley


message 27: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary Mark Foley is right, the first few "flashback" chapters progressively reveal to us and to Justice of Toren's AI, and to the Ancillary One Esk that "something is rotten" in the Radch Empire. Justice is not a randomly applied ship name. It's an ideological pillar of the Radch civilizing mission, and the ship AI and its ancillaries are programmed with a moral code, not just some random evil lust to conquer. This is one of the smarter premises underpinning the novel--the empire is not evil because it is an empire, but because its leaders do not/cannot live up to their own moral code. Breq may be on a vengeance quest, but she is programmed to seek justice. The moment she becomes an individual moral agent is the moment she realizes that her programming has been tampered with. As an AI, she had no "motivation," as an orphaned ancillary she has to figure out what has replaced her AI "faith." I think your obsession with linear plot structure has you wishing this were a different story, with a clever Avenger bringing down the Supervillain, instead of a cyborg Don Quijote confronting her own pitifully human frailties.


message 28: by Nathaniel (last edited Aug 16, 2014 08:02PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nathaniel Mary (et al)-

Y'all are gonna make me dig out my copy and re-read it, just to confirm that my critique is reasonable. In fact, I've already started, but it's slow going. (Who wants to re-read a book they didn't enjoy the first time?)

That being said, there are a couple of things that I can put to rest right now.

1. The idea that the Radch Empire isn't bad because it's an empire is--from an objective viewpoint--pretty insane. Empires *are* bad by definition, unless you think there's a kind of conquest and domination that isn't intrinsically evil? What's more, it's not as though something has gone *recently* wrong with the Radch Empire. I mean, the whole point of the ancillaries is that after brutally subjugating a new world they kidnap a bunch of civilians and effectively murder them by overwriting their consciousness and turning them into ancillaries. That's *where* the ancillaries come from and they've been around for literally thousands of years. So I'm not sure why on earth you're mounting a defense of the Radch Empire and it's "civilizing mission" to bravely go where no one has gone before and conquer the ever-loving crap right out of them.

2. "Breq may be on a vengeance quest, but she is programmed to seek justice."

Is she also programmed to do it in the stupidest possible way? Because if there's really a weapon out there that lets you kill the leaders of the Radch Empire and if you really want to punish the Radch Empire, don't you think there are better plans than to take the only extant copy of that weapon and then walk right into a highly secured area knowing that you will get caught and where you're best-case scenario is that maybe you do some ineffectual, totally symbolic damage before giving the secret weapon back into the hands of the enemy? I can totally buy the idea that she feels the need to do something for justice, but I don't get why it has to be something so pointlessly inane.

3. "I think your obsession with linear plot structure..."

I've somehow managed to look past my desperate need for simple, linear plots long enough to give Philip K. Dick novels like VALIS, The Man in the High Castle, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said all very high reviews, not to mention others like some Vonnegut's Mother Night. In much the same way, I've managed to appreciate plenty of feminist sci-fi (The Left Hand of Darkness or The Handmaid's Tale) even though I'm pretty sure Le Guin and Atwood don't share my real-world politics.

The reasons I didn't like this one are the reasons I gave: there's no discernible motivation for the protagonists two key actions and the assassination plot in particular is utterly and irredeemably asinine.


message 29: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary Empires are not "bad" by definition. They are bad from the standpoint of liberal democracy (one of the reasons we Americans are so conflicted when we go mire ourselves violently in the affairs of peoples whose resources we crave). In our non sci-fi human history, empires have been the norm from about 3000 BCE to about 1500 CE (the greatest ruler of Renaissance Europe was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who would have been stunned to hear that his ceaseless campaigns to halt the spread of the "infidel" Ottoman Empire were "evil by definition"). The FICTIONAL PREMISE of Ancillary Justice is that the Radch Empire has a moral code that is taught to/programmed into its subjects. It's because of numerous failures in the application of that code (which to us does indeed appear attached to abhorrent social and biological practices) that Justice of Toren was destroyed. And One Esk was an "impartial"--but deeply affected--witness/participant to those violations.

You obviously don't buy into the book's fictional premise, but that's not the same thing as concluding that the book is not about a moral quest. To me the "assassination plot" that so riles you is not the narrative backbone of the book. Which, incidentally, also does not seem to me to be "feminist fiction" in any form or shape. The use of "she" as the default pronoun may be in acknowledgment that genetically, the default sex is female, but nothing in the world that created Breq leads to "feminist" assessment of women's differential treatment in social, political, economic, or psychological terms. The speculative fiction of Atwood and Le Guin certainly does engage feminist issues. Nothing about Breq makes her in any way representative of a female or feminine position in her world. We happen to be one of the many cultures where grammatical gender is linked to a social system that structurally debases the human female, so we may be forgiven for assuming that the use of "she" as the default pronoun in Ancillary Justice is a "feminist" strategy, but it's quite the opposite. It's a non-feminist practice that provokes linguistic uncertainty outside the Radch. The book is very clear about this. The author's POV ("feminism," "empires are evil," are YOUR assumptions about AJ's "message") is not to be inferred from the narrator's POV. Again, you may think Leckie does a bad job of separating herself from Breq's narrative voice--you certainly are plenty annoyed with how she wrote her story--yet a bunch of us readers obviously think quite differently. Admit that this is not a matter of "good" vs. "bad" spec fic, but of differing tastes/opinions concerning this one particular book.


message 30: by Nathaniel (last edited Aug 19, 2014 12:01PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nathaniel Mary-

The thing that I find most interesting about your perspective is how much of what you write resonates with me.

The exception to this is your contention that "Empires are not "bad" by definition." I'm not sure if that's coming from some kind of moral relativism or what, but to me the term "empire" entails coercive domination and yeah: I think that is objectively immoral. Specifically, the Radche may have had a morality that made sense to them, but their empire was an emphatically expansive one (which fits the definition of "empire") and that expansion involved the forceful conquest, brutal repression, and wholesale slaughter of countless innocent civilians. I don't care what kind of code of honor you want to wrap that in: I think that wars of conquest to fuel empire are bad. Period.

But then there's lots you say that I do agree with. For example, you are more interested in the sub-plot about the corruption within the empire and the growing civil war to reform the Empire. I mean, from where I'm standing, the morality of the text fits my anti-imperial morality. As I recall the "good guy" faction of the Emperor/Empress is addressing my ethical complains directly by haling the expansionary conquests of the empire. Seems like the text agrees with me on that, but of course this raises tricky practical questions: how do you reform the empire without losing control (and thus the ability to enact said reforms)? How do you balance the short-run harm necessary to maintain leadership vs. the long-term good of reform? How do you shift the culture, and not just the formal institutions? Can a society built on conquest even be retrofitted to survive without the social unity and economic focus of constant conquest? All of these questions are fantastic. They were one thing in the book that I really, really did find interesting. But it was (very sad to say) never more than a background to an incredibly stupid foreground.

I also agree whole-heartedly that it was not in any meaningful sense "feminist." But what I think is ironic here is that plenty of the supporters of the book did. Just do a Google search: the feminism of Ancillary Justice is practically all everyone who likes the book can talk about. I think it's nothing but a cheap trick (and not even that original, since many real-world languages get along fine without gendered pronouns), but the audience seems quite impressed. In fact, several of the people replying to this particular review have made similar arguments: that AJ is good because it is feminst. Which--like you--I find laughable.

In short: I'm not sure that the people who like the book actually would agree with why you like it. What's more--of all the folks who've debated me so far--your opinion is the one I find most compelling. The things you pick out are things that interest me, too. I wish I actually found them in the narrative (as you are able to do) but, alas, I do not. It's not because I came to the book with any hostility. I was thrilled by everything I'd read before picking it up and was really, really excited. That's why I wrote such a horrendously long review: it reflected the depth of my disappointment.

But hey: if you got cool stuff out of it power to you.


message 31: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary Well, I disagree with your "empires are evil" assertion on historical, not ethical grounds. Empires of many different sorts have been around a lot longer than liberal democracies. Some of the great empires have been responsible for spreading some of the most ethically rigorous world-views out there: Buddhism (the Mauryan Empire), Christianity (the Roman Empire), Islam (a whole cluster of Central Asian/South Asian empires). Mind you, I have a personal dread of ultra-Orthodox organized religion, but as a historian I must acknowledge that it is very difficult to disentangle civilization from ethically coherent world-views, and centralized power-structures. The great empires of the ancient world may have been ruthless in the exercise of power, but most of them (even the Islamic empires of India, Persia, the Central Asian Mongol kingdoms, Turkey, North Africa and Spain) were notable for their protection of multiethnic populations with diverse belief-systems, and their cosmopolitanism. We haven't really improved on them in the management of ethnic diversity.

So we disagree about how Leckie has structured her book. You think the corruption of the empire and the emperor's divided persona are a "subplot," whereas I believe they are THE plot, as refracted through Breq/One Esk's memories and perceptions. You think the search for the gun and its "stupid" deployment is the plot. I think the memory chapters do not so much explain the search for the gun, as lay out the moral and affective grounds for the "betrayed principles" plot, just as the roundabout journey in the frozen planet is primarily an opportunity for Breq to exercise her human self, and compensate for the severing of her machine self. To me, the "making" of Breq is much more of a story than trying to smuggle an imperceptible gun into an imperial stronghold. Just as the "making" of a plural emperor is more of a story than whether or not that emperor's technology can detect the "gun plot." From the very outset it is in the/a emperor's interest to keep Justice of Toren, in one form or another, in play. Even Breq understands that.

But anyway, if you didn't think the book had a feminist thesis, I don't understand why you compared it (negatively) to spec fic books that did. Surely Leckie is not blame for that. The default use of the feminine pronoun is only a "cheap trick" if it's a device in a covert feminist agenda. Once you get used to its ubiquity, it's an effective way of "de-gendering" our own linguistic marking of gender.

And power to you if it gave you an opportunity to work those spec fic critical chops. I'm a newcomer to the genre, so perhaps not as demanding.


James Mary wrote: "Well, I disagree with your "empires are evil" assertion on historical, not ethical grounds. Empires of many different sorts have been around a lot longer than liberal democracies. Some of the great..."

Great response! I read this book and completely concur.


message 33: by Jo (new)

Jo Phan Mary wrote: "To me, the "making" of Breq is much more of a story than trying to smuggle an imperceptible gun into an imperial stronghold."

The revenge motive is the primary thing that keeps Breq going and much of the plot revolves around Breq obtaining the supergun and getting into the palace to destroy the copy of the emperor. While it's true that there is character growth or there wouldn't be any reason to read the novel, I don't see how you can excuse having the main motivation of the character not make any sense on examination.


message 34: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary I guess I just don't quantify "much of the plot" the way you do. Breq is impelled to follow through on all kinds of time-wasting, inefficient things that don't make sense (including putting herself--and her presumed invisible-gun plot--at mortal risk for the sake of a selfish good-for-nothing addict). I'm not sure she really knows why she does the things she does, or that she does them as a "free agent" endowed with personal motivation or subjectivity. She certainly has likes, dislikes, strong feelings, but it's not clear that she knows how to act on them autonomously, or that she trusts herself to really be autonomous.


message 35: by Jo (new)

Jo Phan Um, yes, the fact that Breq does "all kinds of time-wasting inefficient things that don't make sense" is one of the primary problems both I and the initial reviewer have with the book! While the main character was interesting and so was some of the world-building, novels do not live on character alone - they also need coherent and sustained plot structures.


message 36: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary Yes, we just don't agree on what constitutes this book's main plot.


message 37: by Jo (new)

Jo Phan I think what we disagree about is what the term "plot" actually means: your descriptions of what you consider "the plot" in previous comments seem to me to be either character development or world-building, both of which are fine but neither of which to me excuse the holes in what I consider to be the plot - the action of the book and the goal that is supposedly driving the main character.


message 38: by Marcus (new) - added it

Marcus Hutchens "The problem is that it's like you dropped Bozo the Clown into a Tom Clancy thriller. The thriller parts are great, but Bozo kind of ruins the tone. And plot. And theme. (Not to mention you had to wade through 2/3rds of Bozo-focused nonsense to get to the thriller.)"

Hilarious - great review =]


Keelia Interesting review, you've certainly opened up some great discussions here. Some of my thoughts about your response:

I enjoyed the book more than you did, possibly because I was able to accredit Breq's questionable actions to her adjusting to a singular life and also to her changing emotions, which she often didn't seem to understand. I believe I agree with Mary when I say that Breq saving S. on the fall off of the bridge could be residual protective programming of some sort. I felt overwhelmed by the power of "the tyrant" which translated from Breq herself on many occasions, and fueled her (self-observed) anxiety. It probably pushed her to desperation. She acted to avoid detection, and for years (I believe) was successful, until the final parts of the book, however silly her actions might have looked from the outside.

I'm not sure that under her circumstances, clearer thought or a better plan would have been possible (and we have, interestingly, a comment in the beginning regarding the drug kef and how it was thought to sharpen logic by removing emotion...but that the narrator didn't agree with this solution). Page 267 has some great examples of her own doubts about the plan she made, but also about her resolve to show the universe that the Lord of Radch had a serious problem. I was surprised we didn't venture to the heart of the Empire to the planet that was mentioned briefly (I can't find the mention again, looking quickly) where only Anaander Mianaai sets foot anymore, except perhaps a very trusted client family. However, with Breq's goal of spreading information to the Empire (a theme I am seeing more and more of in various pieces of science fiction, even with my limited start) a public place like Omaugh Palace would indeed suit that particular goal. I again have to agree with past commenters that the schism in the Empire is a major plot here, and Breq's story happens to uniquely describe it to the reader because she has the best lens.

Hoping these thoughts leave you thinking more about it as well :) thank you for your review.


Keelia Interesting review, you've certainly opened up some great discussions here. Some of my thoughts about your response:

I enjoyed the book more than you did, possibly because I was able to accredit Breq's questionable actions to her adjusting to a singular life and also to her changing emotions, which she often didn't seem to understand. I believe I agree with Mary when I say that Breq saving S. on the fall off of the bridge could be residual protective programming of some sort. I felt overwhelmed by the power of "the tyrant" which translated from Breq herself on many occasions, and fueled her (self-observed) anxiety. It probably pushed her to desperation. She acted to avoid detection, and for years (I believe) was successful, until the final parts of the book, however silly her actions might have looked from the outside.

I'm not sure that under her circumstances, clearer thought or a better plan would have been possible (and we have, interestingly, a comment in the beginning regarding the drug kef and how it was thought to sharpen logic by removing emotion...but that the narrator didn't agree with this solution). Page 267 has some great examples of her own doubts about the plan she made, but also about her resolve to show the universe that the Lord of Radch had a serious problem. I was surprised we didn't venture to the heart of the Empire to the planet that was mentioned briefly (I can't find the mention again, looking quickly) where only Anaander Mianaai sets foot anymore, except perhaps a very trusted client family. However, with Breq's goal of spreading information to the Empire (a theme I am seeing more and more of in various pieces of science fiction, even with my limited start) a public place like Omaugh Palace would indeed suit that particular goal. I again have to agree with past commenters that the schism in the Empire is a major plot here, and Breq's story happens to uniquely describe it to the reader because she has the best lens.

Hoping these thoughts leave you thinking more about it as well :) thank you for your review.


message 41: by Eric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric Trautmiller I understand you qualms with the book, even though I personally enjoyed it. I don't, however, agree with the part about how writing and being able to evaluate the quality of a book are so distantly related. Writers aren't born with the capacity for fantastic prose/storytelling, they develop it through practice and vast amounts of reading. Differentiating good books and bad is a necessary part of the equation, even when opinions differ among smart, well read people. It's more to do with personal taste.


Peter Petermann Hum, the hole story hints often enough on that the plan is not about killing all incarnations of the Lord, it is about making a difference - a difference like the soldier at that one station made (and died for) when he refused to kill the rrrrrrr. A difference like the one that the lieutenant is discussing before she leaves or, the one that she'd have preferred to have made... The book is full of examples of people doing the right thing to change something that is wrong no matter the consequences for themselves. The main character, when pursuing his plan to kill the Lord knows (and mentions so) that he won't kill all incarnations, but that he will start a process of change / end a stale situation with that.

As for helping that addict, I guess this is symbolic for how protective and service oriented the ship is towards it's crew, and in some ways it's the exact behavior I'd expect from an ai programmed for this task.


message 43: by Alan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alan Laird Hilarious review. 5 stars. I laughed, I cried, I forgot what the point of it was.

You seem to have spent quite a bit of energy trying to not understand the in-situ impact of killing some of the un-killable emperor and the protagonist's depth of duty to a former officer.

Everyone gets something different from a book but the effort you put into not liking this book makes me think you actually liked it.

And ditto on the Yes interviews. I was destroyed as a teen when I read Jon saying that sometimes he picked words in lyrics for the way they sounded instead of their meaning. After a while I shrugged it off and was able to see the music as unintentionally great.


Dbdude99 Nathaniel, excellent review. You expressed my thoughts, exactly. What were the award judges thinking when they chose this novel ?


message 45: by Kyle (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kyle French Ok. I'll buy that "Space Opera" is a miscategorization of this book. It's straight SF, with an emphasis on psychological drama.

But if you can't figure out why Seivarden is integral to the plot, and you can't figure out why Torren wanted to attack an emperor who is hiding an identity crisis, I guess you're not too good at analysis.


message 46: by Nathaniel (last edited Apr 14, 2015 02:03PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nathaniel Folks keep replying to my review, and so for fun I'll just highlight a couple of things:

1. Lots of people that like it talk about how they filled in the holes with their own ideas. Breq saved S. when he fell off the bridge because of residual programming (Keelia and Mary) is a great example. My feeling on this is that a lot of books or movies with gaping plot holes can be improved if kind people come along and fill them in, but that's really the author's job. :-)

2. Some folks are missing the point of my criticism of the plan to shoot the emperor. Lots of folks say, like Peter, that "it's about making a difference." The problem with that response is that it's an utterly stupid plan that won't make a difference.

A - There's never a realistic chance that she could use the weapon to kill even one or two clones. She is caught within hours of arriving on station and her audience is months away, and she knew ahead of time that would happen. Let that sink in: she ends a 20-year quest for the Magic McGuffin in a plan that fails in hours when the possibility of success is days away. It would be like if in Lord of the Rings instead of trying to sneak into Mordor, Frodo and Sam just walked along the main highway to the front gate and knocked politely, asking Sauron if he wouldn't mind terribly much if they took a look at Mount Doom because they're Hobbit geologists and would love to see a volcano up close. The plan is *that dumb*. Chance of success = nil.

B - Even if her plan had a shred of a chance (which it did not), it's pointless. No difference will be made because there are tons of clones. Benefit of success = negligible.

C - The really big one is that in the course of a plan that is stupid for reasons A and B, she is also intent on finding a unique, powerful superweapon and then THROWING IT AWAY. Cost of failure = tremendous.

If your goal is to "make a difference" then you need to come up with a better plan than the one that has basically no chance of success, minimal benefit from success, and tremendous cost for failure.

Like what? Oh, I don't know, maybe once you find the superweapon you could try to get it into the hands of an actual resistance movement? Maybe try to get it into the hands of a competing power group? Maybe try to find someone who could replicate it? Maybe just hold onto it while you try to come up with a better plan? Anything would be better than spending 20 years on a quest to find the Magic MacGuffin just so that you can gift wrap it and hand it over to the Bad Guy.

3. I started to re-read the book just to check my analysis and find particular juicy bits to mock, and that felt wrong. I don't mind giving my scathing opinion in the course of reading a book that I was genuinely interested in reading, but I'm not going to re-read it just for the purpose of mocking it more.

4. However, I am planning to read all the Hugo finalists this year, and the sequel is on the list. So I will be reading the sequel. Le sigh.


message 47: by spikeINflorida (new)

spikeINflorida Damn...reading through this debate has given me a headache THIS BIG


message 48: by Q (new)

Q "I forced myself to finish the first one because this was the time before Red Mars and so I still lived by a code of finishing every novel I started. "--Best line I've ever read in a review.


message 49: by Nick (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nick Dasher Nathaniel, there are a number of flaws in your analysis which have been pointed out to you repeatedly by Mark and others which you refuse to acknowledge. Your interpretation of the novel and subsequent criticisms directly contradict the text.

To save you the trouble of rereading the entire novel, allow me to point out some of the quotes from the book that run contrary to your interpretation.

FULL SPOILERS AHEAD (obvs)

If Breq's plan was simply to approach one of Mianaai's bodies and shoot it in the face, then yes, that would be a blindingly stupid plan which would accomplish nothing. However, it is stated quite explicitly throughout the novel, and particularly in the final third, that that is NOT Breq's plan.

From page 267 of my edition:
“The truth was, Strigan was right. My desire to kill Anaander Mianaai was unreasonable . . . all I could hope to accomplish was a pitiful cry of defiance, gone as soon as made, easily disregarded.”

And from the next page,

“What would happen if I said straight out the thing the Lord of the Radch had been concealing from herself? Something dire, surely, or she would not have gone to such lengths to hide herself from herself. Once the thing was open and acknowledged, how could she help tearing herself apart?”

THAT is Breq’s goal. To gain Mianaai’s attention and then tell her about the civil war that the corrupted parts of Mianaai are attempting to conceal from the rest of Mianaai. And she didn’t just come to this conclusion in the final third, as you suggested in one of your comments:

“However, just before the final act, she gets NEW INFORMATION about how the leader is actually at war with herself, and comes up with a NEW PLAN.”

This is not supported by the text whatsoever. The “New Plan” was her plan from the get-go, and she had the “New Information” all along.

From 268:
“I needed the full attention of Anaander Mianaai, when I said what I had to say. How to get it was a problem I had worried about for twenty years.”

For twenty years. Not at the last second. Not in the final third of the novel. She had bigger ideas all along. If her only plan had been to shoot one or two of Mianaai’s bodies, why worry about getting the full attention of Mianaai? She wouldn’t.

Back to page 267 for more evidence of this timeline:
“Take, for instance, that last order, the instruction I-Justice of Toren had given me-One Esk Nineteen. Get to Irei Palace, find Anaander Mianaai, and tell her what’s happened.”

Noticeably, she didn’t say “Go to Irei Palace and shoot the sumbitch in the face.” That was never Breq’s plan.

So why the need for the MacGuffin gun?

Well, for starters, just because killing one of Mianaai would be fruitless doesn’t mean it wouldn’t give Breq some emotional satisfaction. Breq really, really hates her. Despite being an AI, she is a very emotional creature.

More importantly, Breq knew she needed to get the full attention of ALL of Mianaai. What better way to do that than whipping out the only weapon capable of threatening the Radchaai armor? If you showed up at the Oval Office with the detonator for a nuclear weapon, I think the President would listen to what you have to say (not a perfect metaphor, but the point stands).

Finally, your comments regarding Mianaai and Station "finding her out" months before her hearing. To quote your comments, in no particular order:

“. . . the hero (using the term loosely) is unsurprisingly discovered MONTHS before her clever scheme could have been put in action.”

“don't you think there are better plans than to take the only extant copy of that weapon and then walk right into a highly secured area knowing that you will get caught…?”

“She gets to the station and her plan, as expected is a total failure.”

You're right that Breq knew she would be discovered, but it wasn't necessarily a detriment to her plan. Mianaai found out that Breq was Justice of Toren, but didn't know that Breq had the gun or that her intention was to spill the beans about Mianaai's civil war with herself.

From page 326 of my edition:
“The gun still sat under my jacket, and extra magazines tucked here and there, wherever the bulge wouldn’t show. Anaander Mianaai almost certainly didn’t know what I intended.”

And a bit later,

“Anaander Mianaai couldn’t have known my object in coming, knew only that I had disappeared some twenty years ago.”

More importantly, her plan worked. To quote Breq, “I had hardly dared hope that I could revenge myself so thoroughly, hardly hoped that I could shoot even one Anaander Mianaai, and I had shot four. And more Anaander Mianaais were almost certainly killing each other back there in the palace as she battled herself for control of the station and ultimately of the Radch itself, the result of my message.”

She got her audience with Mianaai and had the full attention of all of her, which is what she wanted from the start. She then told Mianaai about the civil war, and even shot a few of her bodies for good measure. It could not have gone better.

How can you say that the plan was stupid and bound to fail, even that it did fail, when Breq accomplished everything she set out to do?

You don’t have to like the novel. If you think the characters were flat or the plot was too disorienting, then that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. But making claims about the novel that are directly contradicted by quotes from the novel itself is NOT valid criticism, and it betrays a lack of close reading.


message 50: by Nathaniel (last edited May 22, 2015 06:49AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nathaniel Nick-

You're the first person to actually give direct quotes that illustrate the flaws in my argument, and it has me completely reconsidering my response to this novel. You directly addressed each one of my major concerns with exact quotes that seem to flatly contradict my reading.

You have not convinced me that my argument is 100% wrong yet, but you have definitely convinced me that I need to reread this book with an open mind and completely re-asses my opinion of it.

So I'm going to start the book over again, but this time with an open mind and the real expectation that maybe I completely got it wrong the first time around.

Thanks, very much, for your response. Regardless of what I decide, it was a very well-executed rebuttal.


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