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07 Nov 2015
Review: Imperial Radch Trillogy

(Spoiler free introduction)

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy is outstanding. Please don’t judge it by the ridiculous winged spacecraft on the cover! I’m pretending Leckie didn’t have much say in the art, and I’m pretty sure there’s no talk of wings in the text. Also, do not be scared by the prospect of devoting endless hours working through another monstrous N-thousand page trilogy. These books actually become progressively smaller in scope and length as the trilogy progresses, but not in a disappointing way, or in a way that strips out the energy of the storyline. This book is at its core a populist anthem. It is about the struggle of the powerless against the powerful. It is about the unsung nobility of incremental progress. It is about love, tolerance, friendship and equality. There are plenty of plot synopses elsewhere so I just want to write a bit about what I found to be the most thought provoking elements of Leckie’s inaugural trilogy.

(Possible beginning of spoilers)

I liked Leckie’s Radch universe is not laid out with paragraphs of detailed description. It allows the imagination to color in the world according to the tones and feelings present in the rest of the writing. Details were not however so scarce as to disorient the reader and leave them guessing about what is going on (not to say that tactic can’t be used well in certain novels). Certain aspects of the universe were singled out appeared over and over (and over), to the annoyance of some readers. Honestly, I didn’t notice the whole tea thing too much in Ancillary Justice, but after reading other’s complaints I did realize that there is a lot of tea being brewed throughout the second two books.

I found the fractured Anaander to be a superb villain. This was the first time I have encountered any device like this in a novel (though there may be others out there). The struggle against the Anaanders would be familiar to many inhabitants of Earth right now. From Egyptians who ousted one dictator only to have the replacement turn sour, to Americans weary of choosing between two candidates sewn tightly into the deep pockets of New-Gilded Age oligarchs, I think many of us see Anaanders on the news every night. I love imagining all of the talking heads being the same face, each one at a slightly different age. They are all the same! Even when they split amongst themselves over Important and Very Serious issues, Breq points out that they are all still Anaander Miranaais and they will never have her allegiance.

I’m not one to worry too much about the implications of pronoun choice, but I think gender in the Radch does deserve a mention. At first I chose to think that the Radchaii didn’t worry very much about gender. Jobs in the fleet were open to all. People slept with whatever other people they were attracted to. But as I read more I started to find it hard to believe that a society that is still intolerant of ethnic minorities would be so tolerant of gender issues that the entire idea of gender differences has withered away. Also, Leckie’s explanation in the text for not explicitly gendering her characters is that Breq, an AI, isn’t good at distinguishing gender. I find it a bit far fetched that highly capable artificial intelligence can’t recognize stubble or hips. To me this means that the AIs were intentionally built to ignore gender. Maybe I’m over interpreting, but to me this implies the suppression of gender in the Radch, maybe by a top-down decision by Anaander? So what does that imply for the tolerance of different gender identities and sexualities? I don’t have any specific evidence from the text at hand, and maybe Leckie does clear this up somewhere. If I ever reread these books, I will be on the lookout!

I look forward to Leckie’s forthcoming novels from the Radch universe!

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