It sure feels like a long time since I last read a space opera, so here I am making my triumphant return to the genre! This series first caught my attention a few years ago on account of the high praise it had been receiving since it began back in 2013. The downside to that critical success, at least as far as I am concerned, is that it meant the e-book spent quite a lot of time sitting on my library queue before I was able to get my hands on it.
Note: For the purposes of this post I am going to refer to our protagonist as “she.” This is problematic for reasons I get into below, but it is the best information I have to go on and it is at least consistent with the pronouns the character would use.
The story is told from the perspective of a character officially designated Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, though she is more commonly referred to by her alias, Breq. This rather complicated situation arose on account of Breq beginning her existence as a being called an ancillary, a mostly artificial construct created to serve the military arm of the powerful Radchaii Empire. As an ancillary, her physical body was part of a collective consciousness headed by the AI of a troop-carrier (the Justice of Toren) that spread itself out across a number of augmented host bodies re-animated from fallen enemy soldiers. That existence is in the past, however, as certain events have separated the One Esk Nineteen host body from the ship’s AI, leaving her to stand alone as an individual entity. We are first meet her on an outback planet where she is trying to locate an elusive person she suspects to be in possession of a powerful artifact. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn from a series of flashbacks what happened to separate Breq from her ship and how she intends to confront the political intrigues and betrayals that led to her current circumstances.
It took me a few chapters to really get settled into this world, but once I did I felt very rewarded for sticking with it. The main point of confusion for me was adjusting to Breq’s habit of referring to everyone around her using feminine pronouns on account of her inability to identify gender. While this perspective initially made it difficult to picture the characters in my head, I did eventually get used to it and was able to apply this view accordingly. What I found particularly interesting about this was that Breq’s outlook was shaped primarily by the society in which she lived. She doesn’t grasp the concept of gender because it is not particularly relevant in Radchaii language, culture, or mannerisms despite the fact that, to her frequent amazement, the people around her remain aware of such differences anyway. Once I got used to it though, I found this to be a rather fascinating perspective that added a unique dimension to the novel that really gave me something to think about.
Going beyond this, the book offered plenty of other things to keep me engrossed as well. The story was exciting, fresh, and mixed everything one would want in a space opera – action, intrigue, memorable characters, and exotic sci-fi settings – with some thought-provoking looks at language, gender, and the uses of wealth and power. As a result, I was left facing a dilemma upon finishing it: Am I really ready to start another series with so many books already on my reading list? My answer is a resounding yes! This book lived up to the hype and with the rest of the trilogy already in print I am hopeful that I can finish it off pretty quickly.