On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren– a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
The story of Breq, the last physical manifestation of the ship “Justice of Toren’s” complex AI, was compelling, especially when it came to a powerful mixture of politics and war campaigns. The mere idea behind a sentient ship which can control hundreds of human bodies called ancillaries seemed a bit creepy but after a while I warmed up to it. After the destruction of her ship, lonely Breq, now almost incapacitated, started a quest to get answers and justice for said destruction – so far so good.
Then came the weird. The Radch empire used language with just one grammatical gender. They refer to everyone as “she”, a default pronoun so to speak (Ursula Le Guin anyone?). It is one of the main novelties of the book. Actually for some characters you’ll have to figure out and decide on your own, if a character is male or female in any given scene. I admit sometimes I had an impression the same person can be both male and female but it’s perhaps only me.
The confusion concerning sexes worked well for most of the book but it made me annoyed too, especially when Seivarden was involved. A word of explanation – Seivarden is a former lieutenant from Justice of Toren . She (?) is two thousand years old but most of that time she spent in a cryogenic capsule, drifting unconscious through space. After that time she landed somewhere, started planet-hopping, got addicted to a drug called kef and was found, half-dead, by Breq and saved almost as an afterthought. Seivarden’s way of thinking was bland at best and irritating at worst. In my view she was easily the worst character of this book, never being able to stand on her own.
Then the plot, although engaging, started to fray. The alternating timelines (plus numerous flashbacks) were tremendously confusing because they spoke of events that didn’t interest me and omitted things I considered important. I finished the book only because I yearned for some kind of conclusion, molding One Esk and Breq. And I got one.
A powerful story of an AI which once operated as hundreds of “ancillaries” — mindless human bodies linked to and controlled by it — but has been cut off from her ship. A story which might be difficult to imagine or swallow. If you’re fond of epic space battles this book isn’t for you. If you find an idea behind one-gender-only language idiotic be warned: the descriptions of characters don’t conform to our gender stereotypes, the effect is deliberately confusing and may be off-putting to some. Still, in my opinion, it is a book worth reading.