Wow, this was one of the best books I read in a very long time. Maybe even one of the best books I ever read. It is about the AI of the spaceship Justice of Toren, which becomes limited to one single human body after an incident, instead of being spread out among the ship’s multiple sensors and multiple ‘ancillary’ bodies. This one body, Justice of Toren One Esk, is on a mysterious political mission, on which s/he is accompanied by one of her former captains, whom she actually dislikes, and who does not know who she is.
The whole story is set in a universe largely controlled by the Raadchai, an expansive civilization tending to annex planets and people and incorporate them and their religions into their ritualistic, superstitious society, which is governed by the Anaander Miaanai and her many bodies. Cruelty, violence, and a kind of AI slavery (the ancillaries) are part of this whole story, and the ship Justice of Toren senses stuff going wrong, and tries to protect her One Esks’ favorite Lieutenant. In the end, she finds herself isolated and far away, and tries to get back to the centre to convey an important message.
This novel was a pleasure to read, and first and foremost felt so skillfully written on all levels that is was pure enjoyment. I was impressed by the smooth dialogues, by the rich and deep back story, by the complex political conspiracies, by the extraordinary characters and their developing relationships, and by the subtle discussion of the difference between humans and AIs - or the lack thereof. Justice of Toren is such an interesting and ambivalent character, and the way Leckie presents her to us, she has aspects of a machine, and of a human. She can be cold and calculating, and kills when ordered without second thoughts. But she is also moral and has feelings. She loves her lieutenant, and she knows that it’s wrong to kill these civilians. I grew more and more fascinated with her over the course of the book. Her relation with former Captain Seivarden is tense and ambivalent, and it transforms in an interesting way.
Very unusual is the use of language and gender in the book: the Raadchai do not differentiate gender in the language, so One Esk usually uses the pronoun “she” for everyone. Only when she talks to someone in a different language, different pronouns are used. It is also explained that it is typical for the Raadchai to not be able to distinguish men and women well in other cultures. This has the funny effect that as a reader you imagine someone male or female, and suddenly realize you were wrong. For some characters, the ambivalence remains. I was never sure, for example, if One Esk’s personnage is a man or a woman. But interestingly, this question lost relevance at some point, and the person, the character, became more central than the gender.