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REVIEW: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Dear Ms. Leckie,

I finished reading your debut novel, Ancillary Justice, about a week ago and I am still in awe of just how good it is. I suspect I will remain in awe for a long time.


I first came across Ancillary Justice, the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, via this review at The Book Smugglers, where Ana and Thea both loved it. It sounded interesting and different, and I was intrigued, but since I don’t read much science fiction, I wasn’t sure it was for me.

Then a reader compared it to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is not only one of the best regarded science fiction novels of all time but a book I loved.

This was high praise and at that point, I decided I had to read Ancillary Justice, science fiction or not. I am happy to say that the book proved to be hypnotically absorbing, as well as fascinating and rewarding, without making me cry at the end the way The Left Hand of Darkness did.

Ancillary Justice has a dual timeline and is narrated in first person by Breq, an artificial intelligence in a human body who, in order to execute her objective, must pass for fully human.

Breq has suffered great losses and she is therefore willing to go to great lengths to attain justice, or is it revenge? Just exactly what it is she has lost and how that loss came about remains shrouded in mystery for well over half the novel.

The book opens in the story’s present with Breq’s discovery of a naked, blood-spattered body lying in the snow.

Incredibly, though she is on “the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it is possible to be,” Breq recognizes the person in the snow. The discovery is doubly surprising because Breq believed Lieutenant Seivarden Vendaai to have died a thousand years earlier.

Breq, we soon discover, once inhabited the mind of a huge, thousands-of-years-old spaceship, as well as the minds of hundreds of reanimated human bodies turned soldiers, called ancillaries, who crewed that ship under fully human officers.

In all her forms Breq was programmed to obey those human officers when she was under their command, regardless of how they treated her. Back then, Seivarden was an arrogant lieutenant of Breq’s, and not one Breq was particularly fond of.

As readers may gather from this, Breq’s spaceship-self, the troop carrier Justice of Toren, was programmed to feel emotion (the explanation for why makes a lot of sense). And while outwardly Breq’s actions in the present are guided by cool intellect, they are also driven by passionate convictions born of that emotion.

Breq discovers that Lieutenant Seivaden is still breathing, and quickly discerns how “she” — Breq identifies Seivarden as male early on in the novel, but applies the female pronoun to him as well as to everyone else, because her first language, the same one used in the galaxy-spanning Radchaai Empire, does not recognize gender — ended up naked and bloody, lying face down in the snow. A run-in with locals at a tavern resulted in that misfortune.

But Breq has “urgent business” on this frozen, empire-forsaken planet known as Nilt, and to be saddled with Seivarden is the last thing she needs. Even so, Breq purchases a hypothermia kit and patches up her new companion.

It turns out that Seivarden not only fails to recognize Breq as a part of the ship s/he once served aboard but that — as the only survivor of another ship s/he had transferred to after serving on Justice of Toren, preserved a thousand years through cryogenics and thawed recently, only to realize that the galaxy is no longer a familiar place — s/he is sullen, uncooperative, and addicted to a drug called kef.

The addiction is bad news, since Breq’s quest on Nilt is a dangerous one, and Seivarden, who has no desire to live, is now an unknown quantity and perhaps a danger to that mission.

In the second chapter, we switch to a storyline set in Breq’s past. Nineteen years earlier, long after Seivarden’s transfer away, when Breq was Justice of Toren and orbiting a planet, her consciousness was nearly omniscient—able to see and perceive many things taking place not only on board herself, but also through the eyes and ears of her ancillaries on the planet below.

Breq’s destiny was to be altered irrevocably as a result of a discovery made in the planet Shis’urna’s hot, humid, and impoverished city of Ors. Justice of Toren and other ships like her were part of the Radchaai empire, and Shis’urna a Radchaai colony.

Colonization is an ugly process; in this case, initially involving an “annexation” in which those who rebelled against the empire were killed or made into ancillaries against their wills, a process which destroyed their minds just as effectively.

A later stage, one now being approached, comes when the Radchaai’s leader, Anaander Mianaai, also known as the Lord of the Radch, converts the conquered people into Radchaai by recognizing them as human for the first time and declaring them so.

When an attempt is made by the empire to recall the most senior officer on Ors, Lieutenant Awn, back to Justice of Toren, and replace the ship’s unit of ancillaries on the planet with human soldiers, the head priest of Ors’ Temple of Ikkt tries to intervene.

Justice of Toren’s ancillary One Esk assists Lieutenant Awn on the planet’s surface, and is therefore present for the conversation between Awn and the head priest in which this exchange between the clergy member and One Esk takes place:

“It’s strange. You hear stories about ancillaries, and it seems like the most awful thing, the most viscerally appalling thing the Radchaai have done. Garsedd—well, yes, Garsedd, but that was a thousand years ago. This—to invade and take, what, half the adult population? And turn them into walking corpses, slaved to your ships’ AIs. Turned against their own people. If you’d asked me before you… annexed us, I‘d have said it was a fate worse than death.” She turned to me. “Is it?”

“None of my bodies is dead, Divine,” I said. “And your estimate of the typical percentage of annexed populations who were made into ancillaries is excessive.”

“You used to horrify me,” said the head priest to me. “The very thought of you near was terrifying, your dead faces, those expressionless voices. But today I am more horrified at the thought of a unit of living human beings who serve voluntarily. Because I don’t think I could trust them.”

The novel switches back to the present day, where, no longer a spaceship but only a single ancillary, Breq rents a flier and, on her way to an even more remote part of Nilt’s frozen landscape, with Seivarden in tow, discovers that the flier’s fuel tank has been tampered with, made to appear fuller than it actually is.

Fast running out of fuel, Breq must decide whether the seller of the flier is planning to murder her and Seivarden or allow cold and hunger to kill them, whether to wait for the ambush or walk sixty kilometers to her mysterious destination.

When we return to the past storyline, one of the poorer residents of Ors, who has been fishing in prohibited waters for food, comes to Lieutenant Awn to report an unusual discovery: a cache of illegal guns stashed in that lake. But when Lieutenant Awn sends One Esk to investigate, One Esk identifies the weapons’ origin as other than the one she had supposed. Their source is unusual and anomalous, enough so to present a greater danger to Ors than she or Awn had previously supposed.

How did the guns find their way to a place they should not be? Why have they been hidden in the lake and what are they for? How does the discovery of the guns lead Breq to risk her life nineteen years later? What has she come to Nilt in pursuit of, and will she be able to attain the justice she wants so badly?

Ancillary Justice is an amazing novel, one that works, and works beautifully, on multiple levels. Not only does it explore themes like identity, imperialism and gender, but it also investigates loyalty, loss, and justice.

It’s a fascinating novel because the narrator is both a single individual and (in the flashback storyline) part of a larger collective that acts as one. Her viewpoint is therefore both singular and multiple, unreliable and limited in the present, and almost omniscient in the past. What’s more the latter effect is pulled off so well it’s both pleasurable to read and impressive.

But the contradictions in Breq/Justice of Toren/One Esk don’t end there. She is an artificial intelligence rather than human, and yet she has many human qualities and is capable of emotion — even great emotion.

As someone who is subject to being programmed as well as someone capable of making choices, Breq has free will yet she doesn’t have it. As someone who for centuries enforced the Radchaai empire’s rule over its colonies, she is undoubtedly complicit in this injustice, and yet she cares about justice.

The limits placed on her choices by her programming, and the second class treatment she receives from Radchaai make her oppressed as well as an oppressor. The human body she inhabits makes her both dead and alive.

And then there’s the question of gender. Breq refers to herself as female, but she refers to everyone as female, whether or not they actually are. Yet whether she’s female, male, or something else ceased to matter to me as I fell headlong into this novel, riveted by Breq’s POV.

It wasn’t just the book’s complexity and its narrator’s depth that I loved, but also the nuanced relationships Breq develops with the compelling secondary characters, relationships that are tested in almost untenable ways.

One Esk’s loyalty to Lieutenant Awn is based on respect, an emotion Breq doesn’t feel for Seivarden, but Breq’s grudging rescue of the latter at the beginning of the novel leads to some wonderful developments later on.

The worldbuilding was equally terrific. This is one of those books which gives the sense that the author knows far more about the world than could be fit inside the pages, but the information, whether techonological or sociological, is conveyed with an economy of words and a few carefully chosen but telling details — and without resorting to infodumps.

The language is clean and clear but didn’t initially strike me as special. It was only as the story unfolded that Breq’s words gathered power, and when the key flashback in this space opera/psychological thriller finally arrived and the events that drove present-day Breq were revealed, I was blown away by the impact of the simple sentences.

With regard to flaws, I was so drawn into this story that the only one I can name is that for Breq to stumble on Seivarden on Nilt is an unlikely coincidence– but the Radchaai’s religious belief is that there are no such things as coincidences, so I wonder if by the time this trilogy is complete, Seivarden’s presence in the same place where Breq had to begin her quest will have been used in interesting ways beyond what’s been revealed thus far.

The homage to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is evident– like the Le Guin this novel begins in a wintry landscape, like the Le Guin it is partly about betrayal and loyalty and partly about cultural and sociological dilemmas, and like the Le Guin it poses the fascinating question of whether it is our gender or our shared humanity that really matters.

But Ancillary Justice is its own original novel as well, and like the best science fiction, it also asks what it means to be human.

It’s hard to communicate the charms of this novel because at first glance the narrator isn’t warm and fuzzy, and neither is the world. Yet they both came to matter to me deeply. I think that anyone who enjoys SF, and and maybe even some readers who, like me, rarely read it, might want to pick up this novel. For me, it was totally worth it. A.



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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.


  1. Jorrie Spencer
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 11:56:27

    So happy to se this review! I read Ancillary Justice last week, and was so impressed. It also stuck with me in the days that followed. It’s complex enough that I’d like to read it again (although obviously a first reading was very rewarding); I suspect I’ll wait until the next book in the series comes out. There’s really a lot going on, but enough forward motion and interesting character development/revelation to pull the reader along.

    I found myself getting a bit muddled in my thinking when it came to Esk, One Esk and Justice of Toren, and how they related exactly to Breq, but I think that’s okay, since they all are, to some extent, what Breq was.

    I didn’t see Breq finding Seivarden as a coincidence, exactly. Maybe I am being too generous to the text since everything in the book was working for me, but given the age of the Justice of Toren and the number of people who would have been on her ship, that she stumbled across one lieutenant is not, perhaps, so extraordinary.

    I found myself just assuming Breq was female, with the pronoun situation. Even though I knew she might not be. I thought of Seivarden as male with some effort. I did wonder about Awn and her lover, though there was absolutely no need to do so. I loved the default-she pronoun in the book, and what that did to my perspective.

    What strikes me about this book is that it is very thoughtful, and yet all that thought doesn’t lead to a quiet book but one full of action and power. The way the world-building and relationships come together is just terrific. I loved, for example, the way Breq is so bloody-minded about keeping Seivarden alive, and don’t think Breq really even understood why, as she wasn’t really seeking that kind of self-understanding.

    Anyway! I better stop here. Thanks for the review, Janine.

  2. Erin Satie
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 12:24:07

    Had to stop reading this review halfway through because you convinced me to buy it so fast.

    I’ve heard positive murmurs going around, but this tipped me over.

  3. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 12:35:15

    What strikes me about this book is that it is very thoughtful, and yet all that thought doesn’t lead to a quiet book but one full of action and power.

    Yes! I wish I’d thought to say that!

    I agree that it was a complex book, but there was also an elegant simplicity to the writing and to the plot arc. Maybe that’s part of why it was powerful.

    I had no trouble separating Justice of Toren from One Esk, but I had the impression that One Esk could be applied to more than one ancillary, with specific numbers given to the ancillaries — One Esk Nineteen having been Breq’s in the past. This part could have been clearer and one thing I still don’t understand that well is the way Breq used the word “decade” in relationship to all this. That is a flaw but I enjoyed the book so much that it didn’t mar my reading pleasure much.

    Re. Seivarden and Breq meeting. It seemed unlikely to me because Seivarden isn’t just any officer of Breq’s and also because Breq came across him in such a remote location. It was unlikely enough that I spent part of the book wondering if it would turn out that Seivarden had purposefully come to a place where Breq was known to be (on a mission from MIanaai), but then that turned out not to be the case. My husband read the book (not with me but on his own) and at one point he speculated something similar might be going on.

    I was okay with the ubiquity of the female pronoun also. I mentally picture characters, and I pictured Breq as female. It was hard for me to remember that Seivarden was male, but that didn’t bother me that much. I pictured Awn, Skaaiat and Anaander Mianaai as female or androgynous (I mostly went with the pronoun wherever there wasn’t a clear indication), but who knows.

    I saw at least one reviewer calling Breq’s application of the female pronoun to all characters regardless of their gender as a mindf–k but it it didn’t feel like one to me. I never felt the author was being gimmicky or trying to mess with my mind, it was just that gender wasn’t all that relevant to Breq. The fact that I cared about it more than she did was something I took to be my own limitation.

    The way the world-building and relationships come together is just terrific.

    Yeah. I think that’s because it feels like the world formed these characters and informs their worldview. I think that’s the case in the best SFF.

  4. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 12:43:28

    @Erin Satie: Yay! It was hard for me to do justice to this novel in the review. I gave a lot of thought to how to convey its appeal because although the book is very appealing, it is hard to describe how that works!

    ETA: I would love to hear what you think of it, Erin. I hope you enjoy!

  5. Sunita
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 12:52:26

    I’m only skimming this review because it seems like a book that I’d really want to read fresh, so I’ve avoided word-for-word readings of almost all the reviews I’ve seen so far (including Jorrie’s). But an A from you is something, Janine!

    On the all-female pronouns. There is actually a fairly common practice within some of the less women-friendly social sciences (and I think also philosophy) to use feminine-gender pronouns when the subject is singular but undefined or impersonal. So I’m not sure how I’d internalize it in fiction, especially since I don’t visualize characters unless the author gives me details. Are the characters supposed to be gendered and these are all female, or is it analogous to the social-science approach of reversing the default pronouns?

  6. Mandi
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 13:16:35

    Oooh..I think I need to try this one. Thanks for the rec :)

  7. Mandy
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 13:29:22

    My favourite book from last year. What a protagonist(s)! I thought it was groundbreaking. I’m so excited for the sequel Ancillary Sword which continues the tale.

  8. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 13:42:45

    @Sunita: I’m so glad you’ll be reading it! I would love to know what you think of it.

    Are the characters supposed to be gendered and these are all female, or is it analogous to the social-science approach of reversing the default pronouns?

    It’s not exactly either one but I thought of it as being closer to the latter. Breq’s explanation for it comes very early on, so I’ll just give it to you in her own words. In this scene she is being threatened/intimidated by another person and trying to assess her chance of winning a fight.

    I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She out-bulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked. She didn’t realize what she was playing with. She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak–my own first language–doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.

    An additional explanation given is that when Breq was a ship, she could monitor the physical cues of those around her better than she can as a single ancillary, and since she relied on that monitoring ability in the past, she feels blind in the present.

    Her unreliability is part of the picture when it comes to gender though. Things become clearer by the end of the book than they were in the beginning (I can put a spoiler in hidden text if you want one), but this being the first book in the trilogy, I don’t know whether more facts will emerge later on.

  9. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 13:45:51

    @Mandi: You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy it — I would love to know!

    @Mandy: Isn’t it awesome? This book broke a long reading slump for me and I’m so grateful for that. I’m excited for the sequel too. I didn’t know it was called Ancillary Sword. Is there any word on when it’s coming out?

  10. Jae Lee
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 14:09:52

    Jumping right on this one. I skimmed the latter part of the review because I want everything to be a surprise, but this sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. And it dovetails neatly with my goal to read more sci-fi this year. I’m generally a fantasy reader and I’m trying to break out of my self-imposed box. I missed the review at the Book Smugglers, so thanks for doing this one!

  11. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 14:20:39

    @Jae Lee: I hope you like it! Please feel welcome to come back (or ping me on Twitter if you’re there) and let me know. I’m not a big SF reader either, so I think this book has a crossover appeal. With regard to The Book Smugglers, I recently caught up on their Smugglivus posts, and saw that when they posted their best of 2013 lists, Ancillary Justice held a high position among the year’s best books for both of them.

  12. cleo
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 14:49:17

    You had me at Left Hand of Darkness. I also skimmed the review so I can come to the book fresh. Thanks for reviewing it – I’d missed the buzz but this sounds right up my alley. The pronoun issue sounds interesting.

    Speaking of pronouns, I recently read Point of Hopes, and Point of Dreams, two books set in a fantasy world (that seems loosely based on late Medieval / Renaissance Europe) that’s matriarchal and she is the default pronoun. It’s done in a low key way – it took me awhile to notice both the matriarchy and the pronoun thing. I enjoyed them – interesting world building, engaging mystery and very, very low key romance between the two male protagonists (the romance reader in me wanted more of a romantic pay-off).

  13. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 14:57:11

    @cleo: I hope you enjoy it! I would love to hear what you think.

    Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams sound good! I’ll sample the first one at Amazon. Thank you for bringing them to my attention!

  14. Sirius
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 15:38:10

    Sounds good. Janine I also loved “Point of Hopes” and “Point of Dreams” :).

  15. Darlynne
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 15:41:10

    Well done, Janine. I could never have summarized this complicated story so clearly and you did it with great skill. A fabulous book, one to be read many times. I hope everyone who enjoys scifi will jump on board.

  16. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 17:24:48

    @Sirius: Thanks for letting me know.

    @Darlynne: Thank you! Writing the summary of Ancillary Justice for this review felt like trying to solve a difficult puzzle. I spent hours on it (so I appreciate your saying that) but the book more than deserved it. A fabulous book, yes! And I too hope everyone with any interest in it gives it a shot.

  17. Kaetrin
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 19:15:49

    I’ve seen and heard a lot of buzz about how good this book is, but I hadn’t realised it was part of a trilogy – is this book complete or does it end in a cliffhanger? Also, is there any romance in it or is it just SF? I have tried a few SF books with little or no romance and I tend to consume them on audio because for some reason I tend to be more adventurous/comfortable reading outside the usual that way. But if it’s cliffhangerish I might wait till all the books are out before diving in.

  18. Susan
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 19:16:20

    I love SFF and space opera, but I hadn”t heard of this book before. I just bought it and think it’ll jump the queue on my TBR list and be my next read. Thanks for the heads up, Janine.

  19. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 19:28:32

    @Kaetrin: No, it doesn’t end up in a cliffhanger — all the questions I posed in the review were answered to my satisfaction before the end of the book. But at the same time, toward the end, some new questions are raised, and left open ended for the next book to continue. It’s not what I consider a cliffhanger, but it does set the reader up to want to read the second book. Does that make sense?

    As for romance, there isn’t any for Breq in this book, but I’m wondering if there may be some in the next one. It’s hard to know for sure. In the flashback storyline, Lieutenant Awn has a lover she is romantically involved with and that affects the main plot, but I wouldn’t call it a romance. Maybe a faint romantic element? Even so, I found the interpersonal relationships fascinating, and I usually need at least a romance subplot to stay involved with a novel. There wasn’t much romance in this one, but there was a great deal of love.

    @Susan: You’re welcome! I hope you like it. As with everyone else, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  20. Sirius
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 19:57:26

    Bought it, have no patience whatsoever :).

  21. Janine
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 20:02:57

    @Sirius: Cool! I hope you enjoy it! And I would love to hear your thoughts.

  22. Sirius
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 20:15:28

    For the good scifi I am willing to abandon some of the reads I am reading now, I am also happy that you answered Kaetrin that it does not end in cliffhanger. I do not care whether it has any romance at all, but cliffhangers is something I hate, so thanks again.

  23. Mandy
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 04:46:11


    I think at the end of the year but I can’t remember where I read that. It’s been a while since I read the book it but I think ‘Sword’ might relate to that new ship she’s on now. Isn’t that called ‘Sword something’?

  24. Janine
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 12:54:13

    @Sirius: As I said to Kaetrin, some new questions are raised at the end of the book and left unanswered but I don’t consider it a cliffhanger because the questions driving the novel are all answered. So if you define cliffhanger the same way I do, you should be fine.

    @Mandy: I checked on Amazon and the pub date for the sequel is October 7th. I think the ship you’re thinking of is Mercy of Kaln, but some of the ships are Sword-class, so I’d bet the sword in the title Ancillary Sword refers to a ship as well. If so, I hope that title doesn’t mislead readers into expecting swordfights, or sword-and-sorcery epics.

  25. Ita
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 23:44:22

    By happy coincidence I finished listening to this last night and concur. (I thought the reader was very good, too.) I was going to recommend it to my brother and will point to your review because you did such a masterful job summing up the plot!

  26. Janine
    Feb 09, 2014 @ 00:14:58

    @Ita: Thanks for the kind words on the review. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book as well–and good to hear the reader does a good job with the audio version!

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  29. Jae Lee
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 15:16:13

    I know it’s been awhile, but I finished this last week and I am so glad you reviewed this. Beyond the entertainment factor, I found it to be a very rewarding read, at least in terms of how it pushed me to think outside of my comfortable spaces. I loved how subtle it was too. I am beyond excited to read Ancillary Sword when it comes out.

    In regards to the decades, I read it as a literal unit of twenty soldiers, considering how the Esks, Vars, etc were arrayed. The way the Esk or Var units were a primary unit (One Esk Seventeen) or a secondary unit (Two Esk Fifteen) and how it seemed to correspond to that unit’s position on the ship (the Var deck or whatever) so there were probably many more units, but we wouldn’t necessarily want (nor was it necessary here) the view of an ancillary guarding the enlisted (or equivalent) mess hall or cleaning the toilets. Did that make sense?

  30. Janine
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 23:58:19

    @Jae Lee: I’m so glad to hear that! And thanks for explaining re. the decades — I guess the reason I wasn’t sure about it is that the unit numbers in the names of specific ancillaries were always One or Two, but the ships were said to have thousands of ancillaries and many more units. Your explanation that there were probably more units (presumably with ancillaries who had higher first numbers in their names) but we didn’t see them in the story because they weren’t as important is probably the correct one, but I wish it had been shown or explained a little more clearly.

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