Comfort Reads

I am not a re-reader. I wish I were. A lot of times, when I read a thoroughly enjoyable book, the kind of book I both want to inhale and never finish, I really, really, want to become a re-reader so I can re-live the comfort of an interesting read or the emotions that it engenders or the ideas it makes me ponder.

But to every rule, there’s an exception, right?

Ann Leckie‘s Imperial Radch trilogy has proven the exception for me.

From the beginning of Ancillary Justice, I was mesmerized, my attention arrested by the voice of the narrator, at once humble, self-deprecating, and kind, but also unflinchingly pragmatic, looking at the world around her with unfiltered lenses. I was hooked by the personal journey of this narrator who opens the door, scene by scene, onto the history of an ever-expanding empire, as vicious and self-entitled as any earthly colonial power has been at the height of its force.

It’s the minutely personal narrative of Breq, former ancillary of the Justice of Toren troop-carrier ship, that makes this elaborate, exquisitely world-built story so deeply emotional. Ancillaries are human bodies that share an AI consciousness with the ship they’re part of. Because of hi-tech implants, they’re much more efficient soldiers than unmodified humans. Because of their depersonalization, they’re treated as spare parts, easily replaceable and interchangeable widgets that work to serve Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch. Sound familiar? This is how Leckie dismantles the ideology and methodologies common to any colonial project, in small, personal ways, in giving more space to the simple domesticity of Breq and her household than to grand battles that are the usual hallmark of space operas.

Against the backdrop of a space empire, this is also a story about love. But it’s no kind of love I’ve ever read of before. Didn’t even know I’d craved reading about it so much until encountering it here. Not romantic love. Not heteronormative love. It’s a story about the expansive possibilities, the limitlessness of love. Conversely, it’s a story of how much we lose when we refuse to allow love to inhabit all the space it has the capacity to fill, because we’re mostly afraid of being vulnerable.

One of my favourite passages in the whole trilogy is Chapter 9 of Ancillary Mercy, which I think holds the essence of the story. This is the moment after Breq returns from a mission, badly wounded, and has a heart-to-heart with the ship she’s commanding, Mercy of Kalr–who speaks through the voice of Kalr Five, a soldier, not an ancillary, who has been Breq’s attendant–and Seivarden, the Radch lieutenant Breq saves from freezing to death in a drugged stupor on the very first page of the first book.

“Ships don’t love other ships. They don’t love their ancillaries.”


“It works both ways,” observed Five. Or Ship, I wasn’t sure. “And you’re not used to being loved. You’re used to people being attached to you. Or being fond of you. Or depending on you. Not loving you, not really. So I think it doesn’t occur to your that it’s something that might actually happen.” (150-52)

Ultimately, it’s this revelling in one’s whole humanity, a post-cartesian reunification of reason and emotion that allows Breq–outwardly read as a dominant Radchaai to the peoples oppressed by the empire–to find a away to rally everyone around her to plot against the Lord of the Radch, also known as the tyrant. It’s not at all a simplistic “love conquers all,” but a nuanced, complex, and layered reconstruction that centres empathy on the ruins of an oppressive colonial power that denied it to everyone but a select group, called citizens, the word for which was Radchaai in the imperial language.

Leckie does many amazing things in this trilogy–a masterclass in crafting a novel (or three)–but one of the most compelling ones is that the Radchaai only have one gender, feminine. Everyone is referred to as “she/her.” When we were chatting about Ancillary Justice–more like squeeing incoherently and gesticulating exuberantly–my friend Eli Lang said, “Wait, did Leckie just abolish gender?!” And this is a conversation that could take hours and hours and many, many an academic paper, but to me, in brief, Leckie exposes the inherent assumptions we have about gender, and asks us to question them without imposing any definitive view herself. The Radchaai, even if they all address each other in the feminine, display all of the array of traits available to humanity. If anything, they expect emotional labour from others, instead of being more emotionally supportive, one of the hallmark assumptions about femininity, whatever that means.

“You have always expected anyone beneath you to be careful of your emotional needs. You are even now hoping I will say something to make you feel better. You were quite angry with Ekalu, when she herself failed to do that.” (Ancillary Mercy, 176)

Breq reproaches Seivarden this emotional unavailability and entitlement. When Ancillary Justice begins, Breq finds Seivarden passed out after a dose of kef, a drug that serves to extinguish emotions. Breq rescues Seivarden and carries her along on a quest and then on a mission. It’s Breq’s empathy, her unthinking selflessness that make the former Imperial Lieutenant–a member of an old, respected family–promise to follow and support Breq unconditionally.

There might be no clear-cut answer to what exactly this trilogy does with gender, but Leckie’s allegiances are not as opaque. In one of the few transparent gestures of this trilogy, Leckie endorses Audre Lorde’s famous edict, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

In a conversation with Lieutenant Tisarwat, a seventeen-year-old officer foisted upon Breq by Anaander Mianaai herself, Breq explains her position.

“Sir,” said Tisarwat. “I understand–I think I understand–why you don’t want me to use them, even now. But, sir, she won’t hesitate to use them.”

“That’s a reason to use them ourselves, is it?” I asked. (Ancillary Mercy, 102)

Breq had told Tisarwat to disable any external controls on the AI of a station Athoek, and give all decision power to the AI itself, and Tisarwat was trying to argue that they, Breq and her entourage, should keep control instead to make sure. Breq’s response, in her refusal to emulate the Tyrant’s methods, points to her politics, and aligns Leckie’s with Lorde’s.

I will stop here, because I *could* go on talking about this trilogy forever. Or maybe for a long, long while. With a deep sigh of mock-defeat, I have to admit that, even after finishing all three books, I have returned to them. And I’ll keep coming back, to this subtly emotional narrative about colonialism an oppression and what it takes to be brave and human and loving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.