People have been recommending this book to me for a few years now. Not just my science-fiction-loving family, but people all over the bookish internet, as well. I was excited about it. I was convinced it was going to amazing.
I hated it. It’s been a long time since I have hated a book so much. It wasn’t offensive or upsetting, but I was so bored and so confused that I had trouble focusing on the words. I had to force myself to read it–I literally bribed myself to read ten pages at a time, rewarding myself for getting through those pages with a chapter of a book I actually liked. Yes, friends, I hate-read 70% of this novel. I probably should have DNFed this one, but I just couldn’t let go of all those glowing reviews. I was sure it was sure it was going to get good. On page 350 out of 384, I lost hope, but I pushed through to end anyway, and then joyously returned the book to the library, happy to be free of it.
I know I’m making it sound like this book is irredeemably terrible. I don’t think it is. It just wasn’t for me, not even a little bit. I can’t summarize the plot, mostly because I I found everything about it so confusing that I’m not at all sure what happened. Here’s what I understood: the main character is an AI, once spread across a ship and many thousands of bodies, now confined to one mere human body. Some stuff happened in the past that has made her angry. There’s a cold planet with weird glass bridges, an empire, the Radch, that has been colonizing the universe for thousands of years, and…a lot of inner turmoil, I think?
I am a hard-core sci fi lover. I also love books about AI, and I was intrigued by the concept of an intelligent ship spread through many bodies. But that is where my interest in this novel ended. The first chapter was fine. I was a bit lost, but that’s normal for the beginning of a science fiction novel, as I get my bearings in a new world. The problem was, I never got un-lost. From the first page to the last, I felt like I had no idea what was going on. There are two alternating storylines, and usually I’m into that sort of thing. In this case, I was just so bored by the names and the dates and a universe I didn’t understand that all of it just turned into a muddled, hazy mess.
Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention in the beginning, and so none of the rest of the book made sense. But the reason I wasn’t paying attention was because I did not care about what was happening. I didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t understand their motivations. I was not at all curious about this universe, and this colonizing empire, with its strange military I couldn’t figure out. The whole book, to me, felt completely emotionless, empty, and unrelatable. It was so dry. I got the sense there was this deep well of subtext that I was missing, but it was such a struggle to simply follow the basic plot that I gave up trying to understand all the nuances. I just wanted it to be over.
Something many people have mentioned to me, when talking about this book, is the way Leckie plays with gender. For the Radch, the culture that built the AI ships, “she” is a universal pronoun. My understanding–which is mostly likely wrong, who knows–is that the Radch don’t use a gender binary; that for them, there is no gender, the way there is for most other cultures in this universe. For Breq, the AI, this ends up being an annoyance when she finds herself outside the Empire–she constantly has to remind herself to use gendered pronouns, which don’t exist for the Radch. I didn’t find any of this especially radical or interesting, as far as gender goes. I’m not sure what point Leckie was trying to make. None of it seemed to have any bearing on the plot. I was so distracted by the confusing timelines and fragmented storytelling and unsatisfying world-building that I wasn’t paying much attention to pronouns.
I thought this was going to be a fast-paced space adventure that explored both gender and identity, some of my favorite topics in science fiction. It was that, apparently, for many people, but not for me. I’m not writing it off. Not all books work for all people, which is as it should be. Sometimes, for various reasons, there’s something about a book beloved by many that just doesn’t resonate. This one was an absolute bust for me.
If you’re looking for SFF about AI that explores identity in really interesting ways, I’d read A Closed and Common Orbit. If you’re looking for SFF that does interesting and radical things with gender, I’d read JY Yang’s Tensorate series. But that’s just me. For all I know, you’ll fall head-over-heels for Ancillary Justice.