What I’ve Been Reading

It’s been faaaaaaaar too long since posted here. I’ve been having trouble coming up with things to post about, as usual. This included trying to write a couple of book reviews that never worked out, so, in lieu of that, here’s some brief thoughts on the books I’ve read since the last review I posted, so many months ago. These are listed in the order they were read.

The Grace of Kings – Ken Liu
I wish I’d been able to write a real post about this one. This is a great epic fantasy, about two men from very different backgrounds who become friends, and then become leaders of a revolt with very different ideas of how to rule an empire. The voice of the novel is the kind if omniscient narrator you don’t often see in modern fiction. It moves easily between the intimate and the sweeping, reading in parts like a historical epic and including elements of classical myth. The world, too, is just different enough from standard fantasy settings to be interesting. Highly recommended; the best epic fantasy I’ve read in years.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu
This was a quick read for my trip up to Edinburgh in August. A race of aliens that lives inside of human bodies and has been directing history for millenia is fighting a secret civil war – and now, by accident, Roen Tan has been drafted into it. Entertaining for a light read, but I honestly found it a bit too clichéd. The alien premise was interesting, and the history of Tao’s long life was the best part, but the plot was nothing special.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik
A young woman, Agnieszka, is chosen by a wizard called the Dragon to come and live in his tower for ten years – a prospect that terrifies her. Meanwhile, the Wood, an ancient and corrupted forest which the Dragon holds at bay, has been advancing. Taking from classic fairy tales and spinning them into something new, this is a really excellent book.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps – Kai Ashante Wilson
A novella, this story follows a sorceror travelling with a caravan south through the treacherous Wildeeps, stalked by a dangerous beast. Reminiscent of the Dying Earth genre, this is a primitive-seeming fantasy setting where the weird and impossible is peppered with hints at a distant past of wildly advanced technempire  It is beautifully written, and in a distinctly African-American vernacular that makes it stand out among the plain English and faux-Medieval language of most fantasy. If it has a major flaw it is its length – the ending is abrupt.

Empire Ascendant – Kameron Hurley
The second book in the Worldbreaker Saga, this has much of what was in The Mirror Empire – carnivorous plants, alternate reality doppelgangers, scheming politics, and a bloodthirsty conquering empire on the ascent. But this is the middle book of the trilogy, the Empire Strikes Back, and it is brutal. Everyone suffers, often in horrific ways; nothing is easy. If you think George R R Martin likes to hurt his characters, try this one and see the difference.

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
You shouldn’t need me to tell you this was good: this is the final book of the trilogy that started with Ancillary Justice, which took home every major SFF award in 2014. A direct continuation of the story told in Ancillary Sword, this sees Breq defending the Athoek system from the effects of Anaander Mianaai’s internal war. Like Breq, Leckie seems to like defying expectations, and this conclusion to the trilogy takes things in some unexpected directions. Like Ancillary Sword, this is a quieter book with a focus on the interpersonal relationships of the people around Breq – if you liked the previous volume, you’ll like this one.

Many Discworld Audiobooks – Terry Pratchett (read by Stephen Briggs)
While reading these other few books I’ve continued my big listen through the Discworld series – I am currently on Wintersmith – and they are just brilliant. Terry Pratchett was a master, and he’ll never be replaced. I’m convinced, for example, that it would be impossible to improve the funeral chapter in Wintersmith.

Now that I’m caught up, I’ll try to find more things to post about – soon!


Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

First up, have you read Ancillary Justice? No? Well, go on then. I’ll wait.

…Well, no, obviously I won’t. But still: I don’t need to talk up the first novel in Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy – the six award wins, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C Clarke Awards, speak for themselves. Ancillary Justice is the undeniable hit of 2013, and deserved all the praise it got. And now it’s time to talk about the sequel.

I won’t waste time getting to the key point: I think Ancillary Sword is every bit as good as Ancillary Justice, and in some areas even better. This is a more focused story, one that centres upon the politics in and around a space station and one part of a planet in a single system, unlike the multi-threaded story bridging 20 years in the first book. It’s also a deeper exploration of the culture and social structures within the systems of the Imperial Radch.

There are so many things the book touches on I couldn’t possibly go over them all in detail without writing a novel’s worth myself. In fact it feels like already have in the many drafts I’ve started writing where I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of one topic or another. I have tried to restrain myself below.

As with Ancillary Justice, the book is in many areas a strong criticism of the structures of imperialism. We see the ways in which social inequalities are created and maintained; the way privilege begets abuse of privilege; the way the casting of the conquering force as “civilised” and the conquered as “savage” leads to the treatment of the latter as subhuman. One story thread concerns the abusive behaviour of a plantation owner’s daughter, dealing well with issues of privilege and the attitudes of a people living under a system that sustains such mistreatment.

The resistance of these systems to change is a major source of conflict for the novel. Breq, promoted to Fleet Captain by Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, enters the Athoek system as an outsider in a position of power, and immediately begins to challenge the status quo. The Radchaai base their cultural philosophy on the ideas of Justice, Propriety, and Benefit, but this has become perverted: they believe all that is beneficial must perforce be just and proper. As is always the case, it is in the best interest of those who benefit from inequality to maintain the inequality while pretending that it does not exist; from the beginning Breq sets out to make both impossible.

Running under these larger themes is the issue of Breq’s own identity, and the related issues of the Radchaai use of ancillaries. As a former ancillary herself, one part of an entire ship’s mind, not only must Breq live now as an individual human, but she must do so as captain of another ship, Mercy of Kalr. Mercy of Kalr has been stripped of its own ancillaries, while its human crew strive to recreate ancillary behaviour as faithfully as they can, which can even go so far as acting as cyrenoids for the Ship. And there’s a further element I will not spoil here which brings up the abominable ethics behind the creation of ancillaries. Breq is not the only character here having to learn to function as a fraction of her former self.

One issue which is omnipresent in the book but not addressed much is privacy. Aboard Radchaai ships and stations, nothing is private. The ship and station AIs are always watching, wherever you are. Personnel serving aboard a Radchaai vessel are directly linked to the ship; this connection allows the ship to view through their eyes, and to register the tiniest of physiological details in a way that allows her to read their emotions. The Radchaai do not seem to question this lack of privacy where AI are concerned, but in Ancillary Sword, Breq is able to use her ancillary implants to view the same things the ship sees. Throughout the book, Mercy of Kalr shows Breq conversations and actions that occur outside of her view, down to the most personal of situations. Nobody in the crew is aware that she can do this. It is a violation of privacy on the deepest possible level, and to Breq it is nothing – she is a former AI herself, and she is accustomed to seeing much more than what Ship shows her.

Also emerging from Breq’s past as the Justice of Toren is her attitude toward the people she interacts with. Accustomed to watching over and caring for her passengers and crew, she has a tendency to think of them in a way that renders them childlike. She is constantly reading the emotions of her crew members, and often her interpretations of those readings come across as somewhat patronising. I do not bring this up as a flaw: This element of Breq’s attitude exists subtly in the text, a decision of narrative voice that very much fits the person Breq used to be, a part of her personality rekindled by her now being connected – however incompletely – with a ship’s sensors.

Both of these issues of Breq’s perspective, her casual invasion of privacy and her condescension, are things I’d like to see explored – and, perhaps, challenged – in the next book of the series, as she adjusts further to no longer being Justice of Toren.

Finally, I want to touch on the issue of gender. The novel continues the practise of keeping the majority of the characters ungendered, by use of female pronouns for everyone. For the most part this does not affect the novel at all – their gender is really irrelevant. What it does do, though, is bring a subtext to the parts of the novel that concern interpersonal relationships, particularly the abusive relationships I mentioned above. By not gendering the characters involved (or, in one instance, by gendering a character in a way that defies cliché), Leckie invites the reader to evaluate their assumptions about sex and gender in these subjects. An abuser might default male in many minds; this book simultaneously genders the character female and renders her gender unknowable, counteracting this default bias and making the story not about gender at all, but about behaviour and privilege. It’s turning out to be a very effective technique.

Ancillary Sword is a very, very good book. It’s a book that tells us Leckie’s debut was not a fluke: she can and will continue to produce fiction with exceptional worldbuilding, politics, and characterisation. In this second book, she’s given us a story on an intimate scale with a limited setting; I wonder if in the third, she’ll show us something big. Whatever it turns out to be, I will be looking forward to Ancillary Mercy with great eagerness.

The Hugo Awards 2014

So the Hugo Awards were handed out on Sunday, and I was there for the ceremony. Despite some of the controversy about the shortlist – which I’ve spoken about before but won’t go into now – the results were pretty pleasing.

Ancillary Justice continued its clean sweep of the major awards – it has now won Hugo, Clarke, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, and Kitschie Awards, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick award, and made the Tiptree Award Honors List. It’s pretty much the most successful novel ever published in the genre in terms of award wins. And there’s a sequel out soon, so expect to see that making a pretty big splash.

I was very happy to see John Chu and Mary Robinette Kowal take home awards for their stories, but I was a little more surprised by the Stross win – Equoid was a good story, but in my mind the category was between Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White and Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages’ Wakulla Springs, and the panelists on Friday’s discussion of the short fiction ballot at Loncon3 had suggested the same. Looking at the full voting figures, it turns out Wakulla Springs wasn’t even close.

Kameron Hurley was a big success this year, taking home Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work for her essay “We ave Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative”. That essay may have also played a part in the victory of Aiden Moher’s A Dribble of Ink in the Best Fanzine category. As I said back in my post about my votes, I had been very uncertain of what the “best” work was in the Related Work category, because it’s so hard to compare the different things; but Hurley’s work is one I can get behind winning the award.

Going through the full statistics is one of the more interesting parts of the Hugo Awards announcements; it’s always enlightening to see the actual numbers behind the results. Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form was always going to draw my eye, as I like to spot where the Doctor Who votes go as each entry is eliminated. “The Name of the Doctor”, among the worst episodes (that nevertheless made it onto the ballot), received the fewest votes for 1st place and ultimately ranked 5th. Interesting to note that of the 83 who ranked it 1st, 50 ranked “The Day of the Doctor” 2nd, and 6 listed no other preference after this one episode. Most of the votes for “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot” similarly went to “The Day of the Doctor” or “An Adventure in Space and Time” when it was eliminated. The key here, though, is that it looks like almost as many people ranked Game of Thrones below their first choice Doctor Who item; that and the 2nd place votes of half the Orphan Black fans kept “The Red Wedding” in the lead.

The nomination details can be pretty interesting too; not only can you see what almost made it (The Shining Girls, Locke & Key, and Joey Hi-Fi were very close to the ballot in their respective categories), you also get to see just how low the bar is for nomination. While it takes about 100 nominations or more to get onto Best Novel, the Short Story that went on to win the award had only 43 nominations. All but one of the Best Graphic Story nominations received less than 40 noms (Saga was miles ahead with 164). And fully half of the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form list received less than 50 nominations. (The really awful Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor”, was itself only 3 nominations short of the ballot, at 35.)

And looking at these numbers, I actually feel encouraged. Not because it’s a good thing they’re low, but because it means that the things that got onto the ballot that maybe weren’t very good, well, they actually weren’t that popular in the first place. It takes surprisingly little to get something on the shortlist, but once on there, it’s quality that tends to win out, as the wins for Ancillary Justice and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” show. So I find myself wanting to keep taking part, and to encourage others to do so. I want to be one of those numbers, to bring the numbers required upward, and in so doing maybe to help make what’s on the ballot better reflect what’s good in the genre*.

I have nominating rights to next year’s Hugos, as a member of Loncon3. I might decide to buy a supporting membership to Sasquan, so that I can vote on the awards and also for Helsinki to host in 2017. Whatever I decide, I will be taking part on some level next year.

* I realise I sound like I’m trying to prescribe what other people should like, here. I don’t intend to fault people for enjoying what they enjoy; I just think it’s possible, for example, to like Doctor Who while acknowledging that it’s pretty often badly written and not on the same level as other eligible works. I enjoy watching Doctor Who; I just don’t think it’s great television.

Quick Book Thoughts – Ancillary Justice

This blog has been pretty quiet for a while. There are things I keep thinking I should write up, but never get round to. One of those things is my thoughts on the books I’ve been reading since January, and for some reason right now – while I’m sitting on the metro on my way to a Tabletop Day event – felt like the time to start. So here are some quick thoughts on Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie.

Ancillary Justice has already seen a lot of hype around the net. It’s almost guaranteed to win some awards this year, and deservedly so. It’s an entertaining space opera based around a massive space empire, the Radch – a militaristic, expansionist empire only recently forced to give up expansion by the threat of an alien enemy.

The main character is a space ship. More accurately, she’s the ship Justice of Toren’s last surviving ancillary – humans whose minds have been wiped clean and are controlled by the ship’s AI. Leckie brings up interesting questions of identity and humanity through this ancillary, named Breq. Separated from her ship, to the reader Breq seems to have developed a very human personality, but is pretty unaware of it.

Breq also brings up moral questions. As an ancillary, she is in the body of a human who was forcibly taken to have their memories wiped, their body put on ice, and linked into the hive mind of a space ship to serve as expendable footsoldiers. As the Justice of Toren, she has participated in the annexation of dozens of worlds, usually involving mass killings and the creation of ancillaries from a large portion of the population.

Finally, there’s the book’s treatment of gender. The Radchaai language has no gendered words – the sexes are fully equal. Leckie represents this through the use of female pronouns for all characters, and by Breq incorrectly guessing the gender of people she meets when outside of the Radch. Personally, this aspect really brought out inherent biases in my thinking – it drew attention to the places where I assumed the gender of a character. It also made me notice how I latched on to information on a character’s gender and continued to think of them that way for the rest of the book, even though, as the usage in the book makes clear, it was irrelevant.

Anyway, this has gone on longer than intended (and I’m now finishing it on the train home), so I’ll leave it at this: Ancillary Justice is a very good book – original, interesting, and entertaining. Check it out.