The Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy) does a good job at what sci fi does best: takes an idea and explores it.
There are roughly three such related ideas in the Imperial Radch that are interesting:
- Ancillaries - Basically, ships and space stations have their own AI cores. In order to do what they need done, they would have dozens--if not hundreds--of former human bodies that had been essentially slaved to the AI core. This leads to a sort of distributed intelligence, where the ancillaries are the same as the ship, although they can also function independently if the need arises. It's a fascinating concept--especially one to give to a point of view character.
- Anaander Mianaai - The Lord of the Radch. Essentially an immortal leader of human space, ruling from a Dyson Sphere (that we never actually see), using the same technology as the ancillaries to have a distributed consciousness of her own among thousands of clone bodies throughout known space. It's interesting enough to have AIs doing this, but to have a former human (it's arguable if Mianaai remains human, is akin to the AI cores, or is something else entirely) take on the same mantle? It's enough to drive one mad... which of course is exactly what happens. And then you have (at least) two supreme rulers with rather different ideas on how the universe should be run.
- Gender roles - The Radchaai don't really see gender. This is mentioned frequently in the first book, where the main character cannot always tell what gender pronouns to use for non-Radchaai. The book uses she/her for all of the Radchaai characters, although the implication is that it's a translation from Radchaai where the more accurate term would be neither specifically masculine nor feminine. It's an interesting concept, although I feel it's over emphasized at first. By Ancillary Mercy, it's faded to something of a background detail, which is honestly even more interesting.
On top of that, you have a relatively straight forward plot, following the conflict between a former ancillary and the Lord of the Radch (who has unfortunately gone to war with themself). My main complaint is how the focus shifts from a huge feeling, space and time spanning first novel to a relatively restrained second and third. I wish the sequels had maintained the same scope. They're good books on their own merits, I just feel they didn't measure up to the first. So it goes.
It's a fascinating world and the books are well written. The first is particularly worth a read and the sequels are at least worth a try.
I just hope you like tea.
High concept: In the future, starships are run by AIs which also control dozens or more previously human bodies known as ancillaries. Occasionally, the ancillaries get ... detached. Ancillary Justice follows the story of one such.
It's a really neat concept and does a good job of carrying the story on its own. It does make it a bit confusing at times to figure out who exactly is talking; a situation that is compounded by the fact that the story line jumps between a few different timelines and characters (or at least versions of the same character). Ever few chapters I found myself taking a moment to figure out what's going on.
It also doesn't help understanding in that the characters have odd names, many of which are very similar. It's hard at times to remember who is who. On top of that, the various ancillaries of a ship sometimes go by the ship's name (either to themselves or to others), so they literally have the same name.
On top of that, the plot takes a bit to get going. Things are already happening from the very first part of the book, but you (in my case at least) only realize what's going on about halfway through the book. Once you do though... the repercussions are intense. Galaxy changing.
All together though, it does what sci fi does best: takes a crazy concept and builds out the possibilities there from. I look forward to seeing where it goes next in the sequels.
This book was a bit odd so far as sequels go, shrinking the scope of the story significantly from the first book.
In the first, we have several different points of view, timelines, and locations. In the second, we're almost completely following the former Justice of Toren in a single timeline immediately following the events of the first book in a single system.
Honestly it makes for a much stronger book. I got to know the characters a lot better even without the back story that was explicitly stated in the first book. Before long, I grew to really like and care about them. It was just a bit odd to come to this after the first one.
I still really like the main character. It's interesting to see a point of view character that is perfectly used to controlling and paying attention to multiple bodies, even if they no longer can. It's one of the main reasons I love science fiction: take an idea and build a story all around it.
The story and world building are pretty good too. Most of it is dealing with the small scale (for a galaxy) problems of a single system. You have people living in a section where they shouldn't officially be and oppressed agricultural labor. There are hints of the much larger world which I assume will come back in the third book. It'll be interesting to see where that goes.
Overall, a good sequel. I probably would have enjoyed it more if the first two had been switched.
Amusing side note: I accidentally started reading the third book instead of this one. It's a testament to how much the scope shifted in this book that I didn't actually notice for a chapter or three.
Ancillary Mercy does a good job blending the larger overarching story and style of Ancillary Justice and the much closer to home sequel Ancillary Sword. The universe is still relatively limited to a pair of star systems plus the planet and station of Athoek.
For the most part, it's a good mix and a much better sequel to Ancillary Justice than Ancillary Sword was. On the other hand, we still don't get to really deal with any of the overarching story telling that we got at first. We meet a few new ancillaries, but they never really act as ancillaries. One of Anaander Mianaai shows up, but she's almost comically out classed. There's no real threat there. We meet a new Presger translator who is delightfully odd... to an extent that pushes past surreal all the way to unbelievable.
And then there's the finale. It's a fascinating argument. One that I should have seen coming. It's actually a really neat idea, forcing the Presger to deal with the AIs as well the humans. But it just seems to wrap up things entirely too neatly and then end. We don't get to see any of the fallout (perhaps another sequel?). Things just end.
The interesting way of dealing with gender continues through this book. It's no longer a point that's brought up every few pages (or at all really), just everyone uses the Radch pronouns. It was an interesting thought at first and it's interesting to see it fade into normalcy so seamlessly.
Also, this book / author is obsessed with tea. It's an interesting world building choice, but I still haven't decided it it was a way to show that this isn't our world or overdone. I'm leaning towards the latter though... I want to go make some tea now though, so I guess that's a thing?
Overall, it's not as strong as Ancillary Justice but better than Ancillary Sword. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be the last book of the series, but Goodreads doesn't have a potential fourth on its list, so possibly? If there's another, I will read it. If not, I guess this serves as an adequate ending.
Up next, back to fantasy for a bit: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. It looks like there's a sequel planned for this year, but it's not out yet. That will be odd.