Ancillary Justice Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 63-page guide for “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 23 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Identity, Consciousness, and the Self and Free Will Versus Obedience.
Ancillary Justice, published in 2013, is author Ann Leckie’s first novel; Leckie previously published short fiction in various science fiction magazines. Leckie’s first installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy, continued in Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, won numerous science fiction awards for best novel of the year and became the first book to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Ancillary Justice was nominated for other awards, including the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which honors a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores the understanding of gender.
Ancillary Justice tells the story of Breq, the sole surviving “segment” of the artificial intelligence that once animated an interstellar troop ship, Justice of Toren, and its ancillary soldiers. Breq, the first-person narrator and protagonist, embarks on a quest for vengeance. The title of the book refers both to the protagonist’s origins as Justice of Toren’s ancillary and to her desire to right past wrongs. The interstellar empire in which the story takes place is known as the Radch and its inhabitants as Radchaai. The word “Radchaai” itself means both “citizen” and “civilized.” The Radch has been expanding aggressively for millennia, “annexing” other planets, eliminating those who resist, and assimilating the survivors into the political order and culture of the Radch. The Radch kills some prisoners of war and keeps the rest frozen on board the troopships for future use as ancillaries: The same artificial intelligence that controls the ship later animates the soldier bodies (non-Radchaai refer to ancillaries as “corpse soldiers”). Each ship and its ancillaries share a unified consciousness.
At the time the story takes place, the pace of annexations has considerably slowed, as human soldiers increasingly replace ancillaries and other signs of moderation appear. Talented people of humble background now enter the officer corps, much to the annoyance of high-born Radchaai who think their place in the Radch’s rigid class hierarchy entitles them to exercise authority.
The book opens with the sole surviving ancillary segment of Justice of Toren, who uses the name Breq, visiting the icy planet of Nilt, a remote world outside Radch space. Shortly after her arrival on Nilt, Breq finds one of her previous officers, Seivarden Vendaai, passed out in the snow from a severe beating and strung out on kef (a drug). Breq decides to rescue her. (The Radchaai do not acknowledge gender and use “she” and “her” as universal singular pronouns, as does Breq/Justice of Toren). Much of the novel unfolds as a series of flashbacks, focusing on the last days of Justice of Toren and the series of events that left its consciousness isolated in the single human body known as Breq. These events occur 19 years prior to Breq’s arrival on Nilt. Justice of Toren was in service for 3,000 years at the time of its destruction and experienced most of Radch history firsthand, giving Breq a complex and multifaceted view of events.
One strand of the story relates how events during the attempted Radchaai annexation of a planetary system called Garsedd more than 1,000 years ago ultimately led both Breq and Seivarden to Nilt. Another tells the story of One Esk’s experiences in the more recent Radchaai annexation of a planet called Shis’urna. One Esk is a “decade” (or 20-soldier division) of Justice of Toren ancillaries serving under an officer named Lieutenant Awn. The story also details the subsequent destruction of the Justice of Toren. In hindsight, Breq realizes that One Esk developed a sense of self separate from that of Justice of Toren at some point in the distant past, a development that may be linked to One Esk’s interest in singing and in collecting vocal music on the planets it visits.
The young Seivarden, born into an ancient Radchaai “house,” exhibited all the arrogance and entitlement of the empire’s ruling class, and Justice of Toren never liked her. Shortly after her reassignment to another ship, Seivarden ended up frozen in a suspended animation pod after narrowly surviving the Radch’s most bitter military failure. A delegate from Garsedd, on board Seivarden’s new ship to allegedly negotiate surrender, killed Radch soldiers and destroyed Seivarden’s ship using undetectable guns capable of piercing Radchaai armor and ship hulls. In response, the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, ordered the complete annihilation of Garsedd and the Garseddai, a decision that troubled many whom the violence of “normal” annexations has never disturbed.
Seivarden, revived centuries later, has drifted into addiction after finding herself lost in a changed society. She has no memory of how she ended up on Nilt. Breq, on the other hand, has a clear purpose in coming to Nilt. Breq is looking for a doctor, Arilesperas Strigan, who may be in possession of a Garsedd alien gun. Breq wants the gun because she intends to assassinate Mianaai: Mianaai had forced a Justice of Toren ancillary to shoot Lieutenant Awn and then destroyed Justice of Toren and everyone on it.
Mianaai, as Lord of the Radch and the mastermind behind the expansion of Radch space, occupies thousands of genetically identical bodies moving between 13 royal palaces. As Justice of Toren eventually learns, some of these bodies have secretly turned against the others, scheming for a return to the reactionary and violent policies of the past. This split began with the annihilation of Garsedd. Lieutenant Awn and Justice of Toren are casualties of this undeclared civil war.
Lieutenant Awn, commander of One Esk decade, led the occupation of the city of Ors on Shis’urna. Of humble social origins, Lieutenant Awn owed her position to the recent opening of the officer ranks to those not born into the ruling class. In Ors, Awn lived with and earned the trust of the Orsians, whom the planet’s ruling caste, the Tanmind, look down on. When Orsian citizens discover a cache of guns, they report the find to Lieutenant Awn. This has the effect of thwarting Mianaai’s plan to give the Tanmind an excuse to destroy the Orsians. Instead, Mianaai orders the execution of those Tanmind who know of the plot and sends Lieutenant Awn back to her ship in disgrace. Soon after, Mianaai boards Justice of Toren and orders the execution of Lieutenant Awn, after discovering that Awn will not agree to become her spy. Mianaai destroys the ship, except for a single ancillary segment—Breq—who manages to escape.
On Nilt, Breq obtains the Garseddai gun from Strigan. At first, Breq wants to get rid of Seivarden, who thinks Breq is a special agent sent to bring her into custody. But after Breq almost dies saving Seivarden’s life, the two slowly develop a more functional relationship. Seivarden comes to see Breq as a guardian and protector, and she develops a fierce loyalty towards her. They travel together to one of the palace stations Mianaai occupies. Breq passes as a citizen of the Gerentate, a non-Radchaai people, and Seivarden assumes the role of Breq’s servant.
On the Omaugh Palace station, Breq finds evidence of a conflict brewing under the service of Radchaai society and becomes the object of intense palace surveillance. Eventually, Mianaai, who has already recognized Breq as Justice of Toren, grants Breq and Seivarden an audience with two of her embodiments. Breq confronts Mianaai with the fact that she is divided and covertly at war with herself: One version of Mianaai triggers programming in Justice of Toren and forces Breq to shoot the other version of herself.
Although the surviving embodiment of Mianaai represents the more reform-minded side of the conflict, she is still willing to destroy the station and everyone on it to keep her war against herself secret. Breq succeeds in preventing this, but in doing so sparks an open civil war. Breq nearly perishes and awakes from a coma some weeks later to find that the more progressive Mianaai has gained the upper hand in the conflict. This version of Anaander Mianaai, now embodied in a small child, reveals that she has granted Breq citizenship and plans to make Breq captain of Mercy of Kalr, a warship whose previous captain has become an agent of the opposing side.
Breq is uncomfortable with this plan, but eventually accepts, taking on Seivarden as her first lieutenant. As Citizen Breq Mianaai, Breq must act as her ruler’s conscience while serving as a loyal member of the ruler’s own house. Breq resents this conflict of interest but accepts her new role, hoping that her actions “can make some sort of difference, even if small” (384). She also hopes that can make amends to Lieutenant Awn’s surviving family.