I've been a science fiction addict since I learned to read and I've rarely read science fiction as breathtakingly good as "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie.
Clearly, I'm not alone in this view, "Ancilliary Justice" won just about every prize there is: Hugo Award for Best Novel (2014), Nebula Award for Best Novel (2013), Locus Award for Best First Novel (2014), Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (2014), British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel (2013) The one that surprised me most was the Locus Award for Best First Novel. How can a book this accomplished be a first novel?
I didn't know about the awards when I bought the book. I picked it up, despite its clichéd space opera pot-boiler cover, because it was recommended by someone I follow on bookikes.com and now I feel like I've been given a gift.
In "Ancillary Justice" Ann Leckie doesn't just do world-building, she creates an entire universe, spanning many worlds and huge tracts of time. By telling the tale through the (sometimes many) eyes of an AI with a self-imposed mission of revenge, Ann Leckie keeps the scale of the experience human, driven by character and emotion rather than by the sweep of history.
Even though I've been given a whole new universe to explore, the image that haunts me after reading the book is that of an AI who seems to be a better person than the humans around her even though she was conceived primarily as a weapon of conquest.
She has enforced "Annexations" of many worlds over thousands of years to spread the "gift" of Radch civilisation and she has done so by taking over the bodies of conquered, making them into "corpse-soldiers" that execute her will.
At the same time, she is an AI who collects the songs of the cultures she annexes, who sings for the shear joy of it and who is capable of great affection for any of her officers who she thinks have earned it.
Perhaps the most alien and most endearing thing about this AI is her unflinching honesty. She will not lie to herself about what she does. She accepts consequences. She understands power and yet constantly confronts it with demands for justice.
This is a book or big themes as well as strong characters: the nature of imperial power; the conflict between the duty of obedience and the demands of personal conscience; the brutality behind the creation of world-spanning civilisation in which all citizens have a voice; what it really means to be human and why we deny the humanity of others; how the way an AI sees the world differs from the rest of us.
"Ancillary Justice" is garlanded in cultural references that add text to this universe: religions, songs, architecture, attitudes to hierarchy, power and hospitality. This diversity is a source of joy and a constant challenge to the Radch view of civilisation.
The storytelling makes masterful use of moving back and forth along the timeline to reveal the plot and, more importantly, show how the character of the AI has been shaped.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version, where Adjoa Andoh's performance illuminates the text like light passing through a diamond.