On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
I remember buying this trilogy a while ago because it’s award winning and I’ve heard about it a lot, but I never got around to it because I wasn’t sure if I would actually enjoy what I thought was a very hardcore sci-fi novel. So when one of my book clubs chose it as March’s BOTM, I thought I had no more excuses and decided to start listening to the audiobook. And now I have to unpack a bit about how I feel.
The first thing that strikes as unique immediately in this Radch empire is that it is a gender less world and everyone is referred to using the “she/her” pronouns (I suppose that must be their default). So it was actually very interesting to see characters from the Radch trying to figure out the pronouns of people whom they meet in other locations where they do have genders and sometimes wear markers to specify it. Its particularly troubling for anyone from the Radch because they are very focused on formality and would never want to insult anyone by addressing them wrongly. In a similar vein, the Radch are very religious and have their own god and rituals and believe everything is the will of Amaat, but what I found interesting was that how they incorporated the gods of their annexed lands into their own pantheon. I’ve just never seen such a unique combo of religion and sci-fi before, but it might not feel the same for more veteran readers of the genre.
The aspect of this world that is most important (it’s in the title ofcourse) is the use of ancillaries, who are multiple human like beings who all share the same AI mind of their ship. Because the ship in this case is one of our main narrators, we get an almost omnipresent perspective and we see multiple events/conversations happening at the same time through the eyes of a different ancillary. This idea leads to some very interesting questions about identity, the amount of agency each of the ancillaries have, and if they can survive as individuals.
The writing of this definitely surprised me, mostly because I don’t expect Hugo award winners to have easily accessible writing styles. But even having a dual timeline didn’t trouble me at all and I understood everything quite easily. The past timeline was definitely the interesting one, with an annexation as well as a rebel conspiracy which leads to why our main character is hell bent on revenge in the current timeline – but it’s the present story that was very unexpected. I thought it would be action packed or very tense, but for more than half of the book, it was very slice of life and could even feeling boring to some readers because of the slow pace as well as a non existent plot. However, the audiobook narration was very well done and kept me engaged much more than the book would have. The main character also enjoys music a lot, so it was quite surprising and fun to listen to the narrator sing many times during the story. But the core reason which drives the main character gets resolved in such a way towards the end that felt slightly disappointing.
Breq is our main character who is on a revenge mission and it was very interesting to see her motivations, how they evolved, and how much the transformation from being part of a ship to an individual has affected her personality. Seivaarden on the other hand is a long lost military captain come back, trying to find her identity in a world which feels very unfamiliar to her, and hoping to find a new purpose and meaning for her existence. I thought their dynamic was interesting, where they both seem very indifferent to each other’s wellbeing but act in the exact opposite manner. And I can’t wait to see how it develops across the trilogy. I also liked the side characters Lieutenants Awn and Skaiaat, whose presence maybe limited but are very memorable as well as an unexpected driving force of the story.
But it’s definitely the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai who was most fascinating to get to know. A ruler who has a penchant for power, who decides to replicate herself into multiple bodies, which then leads to very unexpected circumstances and tragedies – is something that I found to be quite intriguing and the way the author uses her writing to show us the differences between the various instances of the Lord was pretty impressive.
In the end, I can see why this may have won awards but it’s also not something that everyone will like. It hits the sweet spot for a world with unique gender exploration, colonization, discussion of class privilege and prejudices arousing from it, as well as the idea of finding one’s identity in an unfamiliar world. But it also comes with a very slow pace, non existent plot for most of the book, and a dry narrative style that might not suit everyone’s tastes. I definitely found the audiobook to be a much better format to enjoy this story, so that would be my recommendation. And I’m also looking forward to see where this is going.