The Ancillary Trilogy — A Space Opera With A Focus On The Personal

November 2nd, 2023
Cover image of the post

This review covers The Imperial Radch trilogy, consisting of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. Below is the blurb and cover of the first book in the series. Alt-text included.


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.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Two small spaceships that look kind of like jets flying over something that's probably a spaceship and a moon with craters below it.

I enjoyed the series a lot — I got invested reading the first book, and proceeded to quickly finish the other two.

What I liked

The protagonist, Breq, was interesting, and I liked the author's take on her. She used to be a spaceship AI, commanding thousands of human bodies who shared the consciousness with the ship. Now that she's lost her ship, she is reduced to just one body, which is incredibly difficult and lonely for her. For thousands of years, she has been a part of the Radch empire.

The Radch is a cruel empire focused on constant expansion. It colonizes other planets, meddles with their cultures, subjugates the people and uses them not only as slaves, but also ancillaries. That means keeping human bodies in cold storage until they are needed. Then, wiping out their personality and subjugating their will to the ship's AI, when they become a part of the whole, sharing the same consciousness. This is not an easy process, and the person resists for a few days, but little by little, they forget who they used to be. The ancillaries are called "corpse soldiers" by the people from outside the empire. What's left of Breq now (her current human body) is one of such ancillaries.

I liked the intricacies of the Radchaai culture, though admittedly, this part of the world-building only happens in the first book. In the next two, we don't learn more about their traditions.

Some themes that get explored

Through sentient AIs and ancillaries, the author raises the question of personhood. Neither are considered sentient beings by the Radch, and their lives aren't valued. Ancillaries are "cheap" — if one gets damaged, you can always thaw another one, no big deal. And AIs, well, they are just supposed to follow orders, and if they don't, they can be hacked. There is no agency the empire allows them. They are just elaborate tools. This isn't a new subject in sci-fi, but I find it quite interesting and like seeing authors exploring it.

There is also a question of otherness and dehumanizing the enemy. Everyone from outside of the Radch empire is seen by the Radchaai as "uncivilized". That means that when they colonize and kill, they are bringing civilization to those poor uncivilized people — how gracious of them. In fact, in their language, "Radchaai" and "civilized" are the same word. But even after they take over a planet and make its inhabitants a part of the empire, they are still seen as less than. They don't wear gloves and just... touch things... with their bare hands... like animals! (Yeah, gloves are pretty important to the Radchaai, and they are disgusted to see bare hands. I think for them it's the equivalent of having one's ass out. It's an interesting observation on cultural norms and what we consider appropriate.)

There are also class and cultural differences that stem from the above. The colonizers attempt to govern the people they neither understand, nor care about, and that naturally results in problems.

It's interesting that we get the perspective from within the empire — normally it's the other way around. It makes the Radchaai human in the eyes of the reader, but that means that most of the "good guys" have participated in colonization and killed innocent people.

Despite it being a space opera with some grand interplanetary events, the narrative is mostly focused on the personal and the local. We zoom in on how the current events affect the characters, a particular planet or space station.

The conflict of the story begins because Breq (when she used to be a ship full of ancillaries) killed someone she cared about and considered a good person while following an order she thought she couldn't refuse.

Oh, and there is this peculiarity of the Radchaai culture — gender doesn't mean anything for them, so they use she/her pronouns for everyone. That sometimes led to confusion, but was interesting. It made me think about Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand Of Darkness, where everyone was called a he, even though the people didn't actually have a gender.

The imperfections

The first book was quite confusing in the beginning because I couldn't understand some of the terminology. However, it was intriguing because of the two parallel story lines – one happening in the present, and one in the past, telling us how Breq got where she is.

There were some other imperfections. For instance, I found Breq a bit too perfect, especially taking into account her past as a loyal servant of the empire and its integral part. She always knew what to do (which often was explained only in retrospect, so her actions were puzzling) and had a clear moral code. Everyone (I mean all the good characters) liked and respected her. And maybe she deserved it, but we weren't shown how she got to that point. It's clear why she turned away from the empire, but how did she renounce all their values? How did she acquire this impeccable morality? It would be interesting to explore.

Some themes remained vague. For instance, I would love to understand the Presger (menacing aliens) and their motivations better. However, it might have been the author's intention to show that the aliens couldn't really be understood by humans. Something Stanilaw Lem did very well.

Anyway, I liked the trilogy. There was a lot of intrigue and the story kept me invested. I can recommend it to fans of space operas who like seeing the effect of the grand events on the smaller and more personal scale, and to those who don't mind quite a lot of exposition related to culture, traditions and manners.

You can get Ancillary Justice at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes&Noble, Apple and other bookstores.

The author

Ann Leckie is the author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel Ancillary Justice. She has also published short stories in Subterranean MagazineStrange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition edited by Rich Horton.

Ann has worked as a waitress, areceptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Check out her website and Mastodon.

Featured image by gene1970.

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