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Book Review: Imperial Radch Trilogy

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

I just finished reading Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. I have some thoughts.

First: The world Leckie created is fascinating. It’s a far-future universe, where humans have managed to expand to several systems across the universe through the support of powerful AIs that command ships and space stations. AIs carry out their work through the use of ancillaries, or human bodies that are implanted with mechanisms that connect them to their controlling AI. Ancillaries are mostly soldiers in this world, and while they are “human” in the sense that their bodies are organic, they don’t have the capacity to act on their own volition (or so it seems). There are humans, both citizens and soldiers, in this world who aren’t ancillaries. However, soldiers do have implants that allow them to communicate with their ships as needed.

The Radch Empire has been expanding over the last 3,000 years largely through the efforts of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, an extremely powerful AI that commands the AIs on a number of ships and stations. These ships, which are categorized as Justices, Swords, and Mercies, are sent into a system, where the ancillaries and human soldiers first “annex” the populated planets in the system into the Radch. Then, Anaander Mianaai leaves a station in the system as a command center, leaves a “copy” of herself there to maintain control of the system, and moves on to conquer yet another system.

As one can imagine, after 3,000 years of expansion and a number of copies of the Lord of the Radch, there is potential for disagreement and confusion. Enter Breq, our main character. Breq is the last surviving copy of the Justice of Toren, an AI that used to be a ship with hundreds of ancillaries and dozens of human soldiers. After a serious disagreement with Anaander Mianaai, Justice of Toren is destroyed by the Lord of the Radch, with Breq being the only ancillary managing to escape. And thus our tale of revenge begins.

AIs are certainly on our horizon in the real world. We already have robots and computers that can perform simple tasks without our guidance or supervision, and it’s only a matter of time before we create an AI that potentially has its own agenda and interests. Books that explore what that might be like fascinate me, and the first book in this series, Ancillary Justice, was thrilling. It’s no wonder it received the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Breq tells us her tale in first person, and the voice Leckie created for her AI protagonist is exactly what I would expect. Breq is logical, methodical, and rarely makes a mistake. She is also emotional in a surprising way. Her break with the Lord of the Radch is the result of a command to kill one of her own soldiers, a soldier whom Justice of Toren seemed to have loved in its own AI way. Through the force of her personality, Breq manages to gather a loyal force of both humans and ancillaries to confront the Lord of the Radch, whom we eventually learn has had some sort of psychotic break as a result of having so many copies of herself scattered throughout the universe. Book 1 is a wild and thrilling ride.

I gobbled Book 1 up in just a few sittings and moved promptly into the second and third books. I loved Book 2 almost as much as Book 1, and Book 3 provided a tidy ending to the saga. I don’t want to steer people away from this series because I think overall it’s really good. However, the ending was a little disappointing to me, mostly because it felt rushed, as if Leckie were on a deadline and just had to get something back to her publisher. (I completely understand this, by the way. It takes a long time to write a book, and by the time you’ve done your 27th revision on it, you’re just ready to let it go.) Ultimately, I recommend the Imperial Radch series because it’s just good science fiction. I don’t always read a series straight through, and this one is well written and engaging enough that I didn’t want to put it down.

I want to mention a unique element of this series that I have never seen in any other book, and I love what Leckie did with it. Our tale is told by an AI, and within the first couple of pages Breq makes it clear that to AIs there is no gender, although in the worlds annexed by the Radch Empire there certainly are. In fact, Breq notes that on some worlds it’s difficult for her to determine the gender of a person, and it takes some effort sometimes to avoid offending by using the wrong personal pronoun to refer to them. In telling us her story, Breq uses the personal pronoun she to refer to EVERYONE, even for characters that we eventually figure out are likely male.

I loved this. In addition to acknowledging that gender isn’t always obvious by outward appearance, the use of she and her to refer to everyone also challenges the notion that the default he or him, or the use of mankind to refer to all humans, is acceptable. In Book 1, it’s jarring for a while to see only she used to refer to a person. It gives the impression that only female characters exist in this world, and I think that’s precisely the point. In the real world where the default is male, it’s refreshing to read a book where that isn’t the case. The use of she allows the reader to focus on the actions and behaviors of the character instead of concentrating on whether the character is male or female. In Leckie’s world, it doesn’t matter. AIs, ancillaries, and humans do what they do because of who they are and what they want, not because of their gender.

In the writing world, we talk a lot about writing strong female characters, and I definitely agree that we need more. More women in science fiction, in horror, in mystery. The push toward equality, however, is ultimately driving toward acknowledging that people are simply people who do things because of who they are rather than the color of their skin or their gender. If Leckie’s series does nothing else, it opens a conversation with regard to why we insist on categorizing everyone instead of seeing them as individuals with a past, present, and future that has nothing to do with what pronoun they choose for themselves.

The Imperial Radch trilogy is a great read. Check it out, and let me know what you think in the comments!

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