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Book review: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Here's a longer review by someone who liked it more than me: http://louisedennis.livejournal.com/331044.html

Far future revenge space opera*, where the lead character used to be a starship and now isn't. Has won lots of awards, but as much internet reviewery has pointed out, that doesn't mean as much as it once did. Space opera doesn't often win awards nowadays, even science fiction ones**, which makes it all the more remarkable that this won lots of them.

As Louise mentioned, there are a couple of literary tricks / gimmicks in this book. The first actually worked well for me. It's a revenge tale and some of the chapters are present, telling the tale of the revenge, while other chapters are past, showing what happened to cause the lead character to seek revenge in the first place, and against whom. It could have been annoying, but it allowed the author to drip feed you with events from the past in a very coherent way.

But I had a big problem with the other gimmick, and it pretty much ruined the book for me. The main character comes from a culture where there are no distinctions between the sexes, and while he/she/it appreciates that there are two sexes (and often struggles to identify which one a particular character belongs to), he/she/it defaults to referring to everyone as "she". And he/she/it continues to do this even after it is established that a particular character is male. It's massively confusing, and it's made far worse because the book is written in the first person. Where we discover a character's sex, they turn out to be male more often than not, so I can't help thinking that of the three possible pronouns, "she" was less sensible as a default than either "it" or "he". Better still would be to make up a word to represent in English what a genderless pronoun would be.

I'm a very visual reader - I want to picture what characters look like. If you introduce a character as "she" and then several chapters later mention some detail that makes it clear that the character is actually male, then you're just going to annoy me. And in fact that's what happened. I gave up careful reading and visualising and ended up skimming. So I read the book pretty quickly without really enjoying it.

Actually something else of note. Although I liked the fact that the book was relatively short*** compared to others in its genre, one of the reasons it's short is that there really isn't much description. So even without the pronoun stuff, it's not a fantastic book for visual readers anyway.

It's a shame really, because there is much to like. The villain(s) of the piece is(are) interesting, the setting is quite good (lacking in detail or hinting at greater complexity are perhaps two sides of the same coin), and the writing (except for the bloody pronouns thing) is very readable. So probably a two stars out of five book for me. But it would have been four without the pronouns thing. And even then, there are far better modern space operas out there. I can't quite see why the SF elite who give out awards rank this as so much better than more popular works by the authors listed below.

* Although not the sort of space opera involving people daringly flying space fighters a la Star Wars, which the cover illustration rather implies it is. I know some people get annoyed by cover art which gives a misleading impression of a book, and I would have to put Ancillary Justice in that category.

** Total number of Hugo awards for Best Novel won by Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, David Weber, James S.A. Corey combined: Nil.
They don't even get nominated:
Total number of Hugo nominations for Best Novel for Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, David Weber, James S.A. Corey combined: Two.

*** It's probably only about one-fifth or even one-sixth the length of your typical Peter F. Hamilton brick.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 31st, 2016 09:49 pm (UTC)
I found that after the first 50 pages I didn't notice the gender pronouns at all. I'm not sure "Where we discover a character's sex, they turn out to be male more often than not" is true though?

Ann Leckie does't reveal the gender of most characters deliberately and says she doesn't -- but why does it actually matter, the narrator doesn't really know or care about the gender of the characters.

In the end though, why does it matter? It was an incredibly readable series, brilliantly plotted. I don't need to know whether the characters have male or female genitalia unless that is relevant. The society they are from doesn't care about it and the narrator doesn't. It seems odd that I should care. I mean if I want to picture the characters I also need to know about tall/short, fat/thin, colour of hair. These are also characteristics Breq doesn't mention much. So it's weird to me when people say "I couldn't picture the characters because of gender" -- no, you couldn't picture the characters because the narrator through which the story is told doesn't care about features which would enable you to do that.
Jun. 1st, 2016 09:34 am (UTC)
I got the impression that early on, most of the characters were male. It may well be that this isn't the case later in the book, by which time I'd started skimming.

Breq might not care about the character's sex, but philmophlegm did. And yes, I also wanted to know about tall/short, fat/thin etc, and these weren't mentioned either. They might not be vital to the plot, but they help to build up a picture, and for me that's important when reading fiction. YMMV.
Jun. 1st, 2016 10:24 am (UTC)
I think that was (for the most part) your preconception rather than them actually being male -- the only important character I can recall being explicitly male was Seivarden (and that's because he's a bit of a throwback). But most authors don't fill in all of said details. In the Radch society postulated, gender is not particularly more relevant than hair colour but presumably it doesn't bother you if you picture a character and the author later tells you they are brunette.

It's a shame, you're missing a genuinely excellent trilogy here, interestingly written and well plotted. If it helps, the Radch don't particularly have gender so you can imagine them as male or female as you please and the story will proceed without surprising you on that front if you also picture them as bisexual. If you picture them all as female it will work really.
Jun. 1st, 2016 10:30 am (UTC)
I struggled with the pronoun thing. Someone refered to as "she" in one sentence would be referred to as "he" in another and every so often I'd get confused about how was being refered to and that broke up the narrative for me. It wasn't a deal breaker for me, as I was otherwise enjoying the narrative, but I notice that I haven't troubled myself to buy the sequels yet.
Jun. 1st, 2016 10:34 am (UTC)
How peculiar, I don't recall that ever happening even once.
Jun. 1st, 2016 10:50 am (UTC)
I don't think I am alone in finding the way the pronouns worked slightly confusing on occassion.
Jun. 1st, 2016 11:14 am (UTC)
People often mention the pronouns as a reason they didn't like it or couldn't get into it. However, I didn't ever notice an actual swap.
Jun. 1st, 2016 11:26 am (UTC)
It's been so long since I read it that I wouldn't swear there was an actual swap. I think there were a few but there were definately several instances where the sentence and paragraph structure was such that the pronoun business contributed to an ambiguity about who was being refered to. And once that had happened a couple of times it became a thing I was on the alert for and that also got in the way of reading the book.
Jun. 4th, 2016 07:03 pm (UTC)
I'm fairly sure there are occasions where Breq is using another language where she refers to a character as "he" when speaking but defaults to "she" in her internal thought processes.
Jun. 4th, 2016 07:08 pm (UTC)
Possible I just missed it -- most of that is covered by a layer of "these weird people with their emphasis on gender being important, I'm not really sure which it is".
Jun. 1st, 2016 12:28 pm (UTC)
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Jun. 1st, 2016 04:54 pm (UTC)
That's weird - I don't recall a single instance where the gender of the characters was revealed. I have a few assumptions of my own as to what gender some are, but those are based entirely on modern cultural stereotypes, not on any description of someone having a beard or breasts or any other defining characteristic.

I loved it. Liked volume 2 less, and 3 was better than 2 but not as good as 1.

On the other hand, I've hated the Iain Banks I've read (Consider Phlebas, IIRC), and almost decided never to read another Alastair Reynolds on the basis of one of his novels. In both cases it was because I spent the books thinking "Why am I supposed to care if these people live or die?"

Blue Remembered Earth by Reynolds definitely cracked the characters to care about problem, but the plot was just a scavenger hunt in spaaaaace (would make good telly though).

I have liked a lot of David Weber. I've never been brave enough to start on the epic task of reading one of Peter Hamilton's bricks.

Almost finished Leviathan Wakes by Corey. Woot! Want more of this!

Edited at 2016-06-01 04:55 pm (UTC)
Jun. 1st, 2016 06:37 pm (UTC)
Of the authors mentioned, I've:

* never read any Banks (somewhat put off by the politics if I'm honest, although Consider Phlebas is one of the 150+ books on my to-read shelves)
* liked Alastair Reynolds (although I think he writes better shorts and novellas than full length novels, on the basis of what I've read so far)
* quite liked the first Honor Harrington novel by Weber (enough that I listened to it as an audiobook and have the second on one of my shelves)
* read all of Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy and loved the ideas and world-building but hated the length
* read the first of Hamilton's thankfully shorter nearish-future Greg Mandel detective novels (and again have the second sitting on one of my shelves)
* loved Leviathan Wakes and loved again Caliban's War. (The third novel is sitting on a to-read shelf, although I notice that there is a novella that actually comes next, so strict chronologicalist that I am, I may have to read that first.) I'm also wondering when we're going to get the TV series.
Jun. 4th, 2016 07:01 pm (UTC)
Seivarden is definitely identified as male - it happens very early on and I remember it quite clearly, I think because I was still struggling with the visualisation thing - and I think it is implied that Skaaiat is male also (though I'm not sure it was stated outright, but that was definitely the impression I got).
Jun. 4th, 2016 07:11 pm (UTC)
Seivarden is identified as male -- because he's a bit of a throwback to an earlier age so gender is a thing there. I can't recall other instances though I imagine there might be minor ones for the non Radch races.

I'm really baffled by people who say the gender pronouns are confusing for them though because... well, why bother to imagine gender if it's not important in that setting. I'm just not sure why it seems to be confusing for some people.
Jun. 4th, 2016 06:57 pm (UTC)
Apologies for late comment, I was at a fairly intense workshop and didn't have much spare headspace.

I really like your observation about visual reading because the inability to visualise was thing that took me longest to get used to until I figured out that all the Radch basically looked like Boy George (or possibly Boy George in a fancy uniform)* and then it all sort of fell into place visually for me. Though, now I think back, that doesn't account for the pronoun confusions outside of Radch space where you would have expected gender to be more clearly marked. I think "she" was a better default than "he", but I think you could be correct that a made up pronoun would have worked better.

*Well perhaps not Boy George exactly, because that would have been very silly, but I realised they dressed ambiguously so it probably was very difficult to tell. I guess I was visualising more some of the more fey characters in some Anime who are often military, but it can be pretty tricky in some cases to figure out gender.
Jun. 4th, 2016 07:12 pm (UTC)
I think a made up pronoun would have always seemed a little odd but I agree that she was a better default in that context.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )