After reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series, I wasn’t sure I was up for another SF series for a while. The Broken Earth series are a brilliant series and I didn’t want to be disappointed if the next SF book I read wasn’t up to Jemisin’s standards. Generally, as a rule, I’ll read the entire series in one go; otherwise, I forget the little details from previous books in the series and that’s a loss all round. That said, while I was reading The Broken Earth Series, my partner was chewing through Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (or as I call them, the Ancillary series, mostly because the real name had my tongue in knots). Then we swapped.

Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy) is also set in the far future, in an empire determined to take over known space. It does so through different types of AI ships, who can divide their consciousness across disposable human ancillaries made from the people they conquer. I love a good world building and the themes can get pretty heavy, but Leckie has a wonderful light touch, adding humour and introspection that is addictive.

The first novel, Ancillary Justice, is a strong standalone novel by itself, and the two sequels are, while not as goal driven as the first book, a wonderful mix of intrigue and discovery. It was so easy to read these books, though I’ve heard mixed views on that.

Some readers have complained that the use of personal pronouns is distracting. See, the Radch empire has no acknowledged genders. Their language doesn’t recognise men or women, and unless someone is naked, you can’t neccessarily tell by someone’s appearance as all genders can wear skirts or pants, and use all kinds of jewelry to display their positions and connections. Told from the first person perspective of Breq, the self-named last remaining ancillary of the ship Justice of Toren, readers can only interpret the world through Breq’s eyes. For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer to Breq as ‘she’, just as she refers to everyone else by the female personal pronoun unless she’s attempting to speak in a language that requires distinctive pronouns. Even then she doesn’t always get it right. It sounds more complicated than it is, truly.

I absolutely love how Leckie approaches this, and honestly, by the second book I barely noticed. It’s interesting trying to determine characters’ genders by their characteristics and actions, and then think about why I thought they were male or female from their description. For example, we meet Seivarden in the first chapter and Breq tells us Seivarden is male because she’d know the individual previously (and refers to Seivarden as she for the entire series). Yet Seivarden does not act how our society expects men to behave (an issue I think the Imperial Radch series approaches in an interesting way). Seivarden is emotional, often passive, and heavily reliant on Breq, often characteristics (incorrectly) bestowed upon women. My partner have had some fascinating conversation regarding these unconcious biases thanks to this series.

Leckie offers clues for some characters (a priest has a beard for instance or Breq realising she’s made a mistake when speaking a foreign language), but for the most part, we’re never 100% sure what the characters genders are and I can’t express how brilliant this is. It adds to the cultural and societal setting, is never awkward or forced, and I had no problem adapting. I understand that for some people this might be a little trickier, but if so, hopefully it’ll encourage those readers to ask themselves why they have trouble. How have our societies shaped our view of gender? How does gender play into our identities?

I won’t even get started with the awesome technology and who doesn’t like a good space story? Add this series to your list, and I promise you won’t regret it!