As debut novels go they don’t come much more ambitious than Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a complex, politically-themed science fiction epic. Heavily reminiscent of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, from the huge scale of its setting to the use of powerful ship-based artificial intelligences, it nonetheless feels fresh and characterful, distinct enough to stand proudly within the space opera genre. The story follows Breq, an ancillary – a ship’s once-human avatar – previously one of many, but now separate and alone. We meet her nineteen years into a mission that she is pursuing with single-minded determination, and which might be finally drawing to a close.
As events progress we gradually learn more about what Breq’s doing and why, and how she found herself parted from her ship and fellow ancillaries. The narrative swaps between past and present, mixing in scenes from Breq’s past with the events currently taking place, more and more of what’s happening making sense as the book continues. It’s a slow reveal, again reminiscent of Banks, with an awful lot of information to take onboard, made more complicated still by a strange quirk of Leckie’s invented galaxy which means that Breq refers to all characters as ‘she’ regardless of their actual gender (which is bizarre, but becomes quite interesting after a while). While some might prefer an easier read, and more exposition, it rewards the patient reader’s efforts with a huge, rich universe and some really fascinating characters – AI fragments that collect songs, an omnipotent ruler competing with his/herself – and poses some fascinating questions.
This taps into a rich vein of classic science fiction by focusing on building a complex, clever plot with well-drawn characters, and keeping the technology, aliens and other oddities as context, as opposed to being the focus of the story. There’s plenty of very sci-fi elements throughout the whole book, but look past those and it reveals a great plot with themes of revenge, morality, power and equality, while the characters – despite their strangeness and alien nature – remain relatable and understandable. It’s also worth noting that despite being the first book in a trilogy (the third part of which is due out later this year), it feels like a self-contained story that can be read on its own, and doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger that obliges the reader to go out and get the next book straight away.
For a first novel, this is hugely impressive. The sheer scale of the world-building involved is remarkable enough, but to have populated this universe with such relatable, detailed characters and to have maintained a satisfying story throughout…it’s almost miraculous. There’s no doubt that this is not an easy read, and anyone looking for a book that will spoon-feed them a simple plot should definitely look elsewhere. For those prepared to spend some time with a book and take it on faith that their patience and perseverance will be rewarded, this is very much worth investigating.