This year I’m giving each nominated work for the Hugo and Nebula novel awards their very own entry after I read them.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie was a good book. I enjoyed reading it. But it didn’t live up to the hype.
I heard about this book soon after it was released. There was a big splash on many different blogs that I read about how awesome it was. I considered checking it out from the library, but I was busy with schoolwork and did not end up doing that.
The technique of alternating between a past timeline and a present timeline worked well to keep my interest in the story. It was also interesting in that the point of view in the present time and the past time were the same but different. Not just a singular character in two different times, but a multiplicity in one time and a slice of that multiplicity in the other.
And then there were the pronouns.
The language of the main society on which the story focuses has no gender. There are different ways to handle “translating” something with no gender into a language that does have gender. I would posit that the English language is not heavily gendered. It lacks that gendered nouns of, for example, Spanish, that require a matching gender for modifiers. But English does have gender specific pronouns. And, generally, when one wishes to remove gender from consideration in the English language, one will either use the neutral “it” or what ends up being the default, “he.”
Ann Leckie uses “she” as a default. The translation of gendered words from the Radch language of her book defaults to the feminine in English.
This is both disconcerting and neat.
I’m not used to it, and so every time I read one of those pronouns, I was bounced from the story, just a little bit. I had to consider and remember from other clues or outright pronouncements (“she was a male”) what the gender of various characters was.
Or maybe I didn’t have to, but I did. The gender of the point of view character is never discussed or revealed, and that makes sense, given that the personality was originally a ship and there is never discussion of whether a ship would have a gender (though I think my mind assigned female based on naval tradition – or my innate bias to see viewpoint characters as like me).
To me, this simple linguistic trick was the big deal behind the hype. And, in many ways, I believe the trick did live up to the hype. It feels like a big deal to me that a book has been written, and written well, that outright denies that the masculine gender should be the default.
But before reading the book, I thought all the hype was about the story. I thought I was going to read a mind-blowing story, rather than a good story with a mind-blowing concept in its structure.
Of course, that leads to the question of what I would consider a mind-blowing story, and I’m sure that answer is different for everyone. A mind-blowing story makes me want to read the book again, over and over. It makes me cry, and re-evaluate what I think about myself and how I live my life.
I’m looking forward to the sequel. I do want to know what happens. But I’m not going to be counting the days or marking it on my calendar, and I’m not going to be anguished if the publication date is pushed back.