Last year my Laddie bought me a wine caddy puzzle for Yule.
There can’t be much challenge in such a basic construction, I thought. But the sleek toy proved deceptively complex. How does the hook fit into the loop? And what do the balls have to do with it?!
It took some mental effort and unconventional to thinking to figure out how the different pieces connected to one another.
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s science fiction award-sweeping debut, is a wine caddy of a story. The simple plot of a rogue fighter seeking revenge provides the framework for many components; readers must fully engage to determine how they work together. Heroine Breq is, literally, a fragment of her former self (piecing together why and how is one of this book’s deductive joys). Present and past unfold in alternating chapters until the connection between Breq’s origin, her strange circumstances, and the political contradictions within the colonial empire called the Radch are revealed. Subtle tension throughout casts the atmosphere of a moody mystery novel over a highly sophisticated future world.
The book’s most provocative aspect is Leckie’s masterful exploitation of gendered language. Her Radch makes no gender differentiations in its culture or speech. While other authors have employed similar concepts, all the ones I’ve read default to masculine or invented pronouns to express neutrality. Leckie—or rather Breq, whose struggles with gendered grammar will endear her to any language student—chooses the female pronoun and applies it to members of both sexes. For example, in the first chapter Breq specifies that her companion Seivarden is male, but still refers to him as “she” in narration.
Once absorbed, this initially confusing construct liberates the reader’s interaction with the story. Since Leckie divulges the biological sex of just a few characters, readers are free to cast the story as they wish (with occasional revisions upon encountering sentences like “she stroked her beard”). This fluidity reveals the reader’s own gendered thought patterns in a gentle, unobtrusive way. I paused at several points to flip the gender assignments I’d given each character and ponder how the change reshaped my interpretation of the story. It also made me evaluate what traits made me perceive certain characters as male or female in the first place. Such ambiguity allowed me to view each character without the customary set of sociocultural lenses. It’s a refreshing way to look at things, one I wish we could all apply more often to real life.
Gender doesn’t have much impact on the characters’ behavior, but culture does. The imperialist Radch draws parallels to colonial history on Earth, with themes of assimilation and identity that resonate nicely with current events. Ancillary Justice ties up enough loose ends to feel complete, but since it’s the first book of a trilogy, questions remain unanswered. I’ve opened the caddy, but have yet to uncork the wine bottle. I look forward to the sequel, which promises a whole new brew of complex layers to savor.