It’s unsubtle in its feminism, but is never aggressive in it. It plays marvelous games with language that play with identity (gender identity and on a more metaphysical level) and some tricks with linear storytelling.
The short summary is that the lead character is an AI that was formerly a giant spaceship who also simultaneously existed inside ‘ancillaries’ -humans (usually prisoners) who were turned into, well, ancillary appendages for the AI and the ship. The AI perceives all things from the perspective of all bodies (organic or mechanical) that make ‘it’ up. But the book begins when everything but one ancillary is destroyed and Leckie brilliantly writes about what it’s like to lose so much perception. Instead of seeing in hundreds of places at once, she can only see straight ahead now.
‘She.’ The language of the space empire where this takes place does not have gender identifiers. Leckie generally calls everyone ‘she’ to reflect this, but in a gendered language like English, that’s a fairly subversive strategy that creates some real (and enjoyable) dissonance for the reader. One develops images of characters as male or female, but then, through the use of feminine pronouns, all one’s assumptions are thrown into doubt. And I always thought of the main character as female, but does not even make sense? We have no idea as to the gender of the body and when ‘she’ was a ship with dozens of additional bodies… does gender even make sense?
The linearity games come by the flashbacks (it’s a two thousand year old ship). Conversations between the ship and multiple people occurring simultaneously: one between a military officer on a planet, talking to an ancillary and one between the main ship and an officer. With perfect recall and a vast mind and experiencing all aspects of ‘herself’ simultaneously, it becomes dizzying and immersive.
Finally, on a more genre level, it’s got some nice set pieces and is a beautifully realized bit science fiction world building (or galaxy building, really).
If you’re a sci fi fan or a feminist fiction fan or just like kooky conversations about existential identity, you’ll like Ancillary Justice. Or if you just like a good read and don’t mind being challenged a little bit. I’m not calling it a science fiction Finnegans Wage, but it does ask something of the reader.