There are a few things that I need to talk about before I begin this review. First, the review is for three books, Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, the three books in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy. Or is it the first three books of her Imperial Radch Series? I believe it’s a trilogy, but time will tell.
I try to make sure there are no spoilers in my reviews. In this one I take it to an extreme. There is something you will figure out in the first chapter or two of the first book, Ancillary Justice. It is perhaps the core idea of the series. But to me it was a “wow, very cool!” moment when I discovered it. I’d feel evil if I took that moment away from you. I am going to talk about things you’ll find out along the way, but they aren’t the “Wow, very cool!” type things as this fundamental concept of the author’s universe.
One thing you’ll figure out later in the book is what the names of the books are about. In this universe an “ancillary” is a human body that is controlled by another intelligence as part of a larger, cohesive unit. The “bigger” intelligence is usually an artificial intelligence of a ship. That isn’t a great definition, but will do to get you started. And what are the ships that have these “ancillaries” tied into their network? There are generally three types that are important in the books (again, with a grain of salt), all three being armed military ships with the ancillaries being used, in one role, as soldiers. The three ships are the huge troop carriers, the Justices (i.e., like the first book), the much smaller, faster Swords (second book) and the Mercies (third book). I’m not sure exactly what a Mercy is except that it isn’t as well armed as a Sword, at least not for ship to ship combat. So, we have three ship types and three books with the ships in the title, which, at least in part, is where my guess that the series will stop at a trilogy comes from.
And then there is the name of the series. Radch is the center of a large empire. When reading it you will see references to Radch space and the Radchaai within the first few pages. You can start off thinking “Roman Empire in space” and not be too far off, though it is, of course, totally different, as you’ll discover. These books, particularly the second, are full of details making this a living, breathing political space. The Radch are humans, as are the people in their empire and most of the surrounding systems. But there are “aliens” (non-humans) in this universe.
Now for the review, which will be very, very short after that long introduction!
The first book starts off in a small town at the frontiers of the habitable area of an icy world as far from the center of Radch space as you can possibly be and still find humans. Way out there. The main character, Breq, finds a body in the snow and cold and quickly discovers that not only is the body still alive, but it is somebody Breq knows. Curiously, the person should have been dead for about a thousand years. Thus, with this mystery (on several levels!) starts the “current” part of the story. For a big chunk of the book there is also the action from about 20 years previous that creates the backdrop, the reason for the action, as it were. Plus there are a few diversions, such as some going a thousand years to back to give a background of the body in the snow. Note: it’s all important.
The first book was by far my favorite. You know, it didn’t win the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clark Award, etc., etc., for nothing. It is a very good book and lays the groundwork for the other two. You really get to know what makes Breq tick.
The second was, as is typical in trilogies, not quite as good. In ways it was almost a bridge that had to be crossed. The action seemed small and almost petty after the end of the first book, yet these petty disagreements and such made real the ideas of shared humanity and social justice that were brought up in the first book. And this book actually tells us what it is like to live in the Radchaai Empire. We get to know the citizens (and noncitizens) in a more personal way. We experience it more, even if there is more tea than action. We get how their society works, both in very subtle ways and in some larger than life ways. As with any bridge, this book is very necessary to set up the last one.
The last book does a good job of wrapping it all up and bringing these themes together, along with an unstated theme that was always hovering in the background. It isn’t as good as the first, but it does make a very satisfying end. And for the most part it does come to an end, yet it is left open enough that other books could be written in this universe and even in the same timeline.
I’ve read some reviews that called these books “space opera”, and in ways it is fitting. Although the tech is very cool, although there are space ships, space stations, etc., the main parts of the books are the characters. Beyond that, huge swaths of the book deal with society and politics. And, of course, the universe it is set in is reveled in loving detail.
I enjoyed the books. They were a good read. In all of them I reached a point where I didn’t do anything else except read. I would recommend them.