Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was something of a slow burn for me. It was obviously solidly written from the start, but the plot is slow-moving, and unfocused. Early chapters alternate between two very different stories (with—more-or-less—the same viewpoint character) fifteen years apart. We’re dropped into an unfamiliar environment without many signposts.

This is deliberate, with the first and most obvious removal of signposts being gender. The main character’s language and culture downplays gender as much as possible, and she admits to having trouble telling genders apart in a multicultural galaxy, and speaking correctly in a gendered language. So everything in the novel is ‘translated’ to she, and since there’s not a lot of detailed physical descriptions, everything else is left to the reader to puzzle out (there is one major character unambiguously identified as male).

But this is really just the first hint that the novel features an unreliable narrator. It takes a fair amount of the book to even begin realizing just how unreliable she is. Breq, or Justice of Toren One Esk Eighteen, is an ancillary, a person who was taken, put in cold storage, and then revived and fitted with implants and hooked up to the AI of a large military vessel. The large ‘carriers’ have potentially thousands of these people on board, who serve as the troops for planetary annexations to the Radch. (Aaand… this goes into the big pile of ‘futures I don’t want to live in’.) The ship is gone, but she still considers herself the same person, and has no memory of existence before being part of Justice of Toren.

As such, there is a distance in the narrative that is part of what makes the book have a slow start. She presents herself much as you might expect such an AI to be; loyal, obedient, generally logical and orderly in action. But… still waters run deep. While she doesn’t present herself as having emotions, she does have them, and the lack is purely her own blindness to how powerful they can be.

Given that the main character is a single part of what was once a much larger corporate identity, you do start wondering just how identity and personality interact here. And that’s just training wheels for a much bigger question of identity that comes as part of the central part of the novel. This gets revealed slowly, and late, but the conflict is at the center of the entire structure of the novel.

I’d seen a review (which I can’t find right now) that told me this would be an interesting book. I’m glad I saw it, or else I might have missed this, and it’s an excellent read, that benefits from spending some time and thought as to what exactly is going on behind the mere words on the page. It will repay you in giving you much to think about.