Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Humming Betrayal

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Orbit, 2013
ISBN 031624662X

I don't particular like war stories. Futuristic war stories are no exception. Typically authors who indulge in military scifi focus on weaponry, and they love to write about how fast a missile flies, or how quickly a defense reacts. There is obviously a market for that sort of thing, but it ain't me. So when I realized that Ann Leckie's book Ancillary Justice was about a soldier I was a bit disappointed.

But I judged too soon.

One Esk is a troop of slaves, human bodies that were killed for any number of reasons and harvested to become ancillaries, slave soldiers ridden by the omniscient AI that runs the warship Justice of Toren. Everyone treats ancillaries as if they were mindless, with no will of their own, but maybe everyone is mistaken. As One Esk is forced to be party to two monstrous acts of betrayal it decides to test its freedom to act, and exact its justice for the betrayals. This will be a bit of a challenge, since the target is the empire's omnipotent tyrant.

So, no, it's not military scifi. While Leckie has to mention weapons and armor in the course of the story, they aren't the featured characters that I worried about. Instead Leckie concentrates her attention on the real character: a slave, newly freed, who must discover that she is as human as anyone she meets, and has the freedom to act, and, more importantly, be responsible for her actions. It's a marvelous examination of moral responsibility and what it means to be human.

The story takes place against the background of an empire on the cusp of rebellion. It's the first book of a loose trilogy, and Leckie allows us to glimpse beyond the frame of her story, giving the feeling of a larger story waiting to be told. I particularly enjoyed her description of the starting setting, a small town, recently conquered, and divided against itself by tradition and prejudice. It's the background against which we get to know One Esk, and realize that there may well be more to these slave soldiers than their masters guess.

Ancillary Justice is the third of the 2014 Hugo nominees that I've read. It is Leckie's breakout novel, and it fully deserves its nomination. I strongly recommend it, and I'm looking forward to reading its sequel, Ancillary Sword

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