I bought this book about nine months ago on a trip to Virginia, at the famed (where famed = “talked about a lot by a podcaster I listen to”) Fountain Bookstore in downtown Richmond. I did what I always do at a new bookstore: I said, “I want to buy a book, in paperback, that you think is awesome. What do you got?” The bookseller, showing a respectable amount of laziness, pointed at the Staff Picks shelf but also mentioned which picks were actually his, one of which was this book. I had heard that it existed and was supposed to be good, but when the bookseller said, dude, it’s a book about a person that used to be a spaceship? You know I was sold.
And then of course I put it off in favor of library books that needed to be returned until earlier this summer when I found myself in need of a print book and this was the handiest one. And then I didn’t want to put it down, so it came with me to the beach and to Disney World and even briefly into the library with me until I was good and done with it.
Not that I am. This is one of those thinky books, not just in that it makes you think about things like gender roles and inter-class conflict and the nature of consciousness but also in that it is damn confusing. Which, it’s a book about a person who used to be a spaceship, I should probably have expected that, but I think it’s even just a little bit more confusing than that.
Why is it confusing? Well. The book is told in my favorite way, with two storylines from different time frames jumping back and forth between each other. In one, we meet Breq, who we soon learn is our erstwhile spaceship and who is travelling the galaxy on a mission but gets derailed rescuing a former crewmember from certain death. In the other, we meet Lieutenant Awn and her cadre of “ancillaries”, collectively known as One Esk, who are (and this is a bit awful) the AI of Awn’s home spaceship working inside of a dozen or so human bodies who are… not exactly dead.
There’s a lot to learn in both storylines. In Breq’s world, we’re finding out about Breq’s current quest to find an Important Thing and do another Important Thing with it, and also about how Breq knows this rescued crewmember and why the crewmember was almost dead and how the universe is functioning after a couple of other Important Things that happened, all of which start out super vague and get increasingly specific. In One Esk’s world, we’re finding out about this planet that was taken over by the Radch (with Awn and One Esk as the troops overseeing the results of the takeover) and what that means and how the different classes on this planet are reacting to the same event, and then also later we’re learning that the Radch leader is doing some dicey things that may involve One Esk and that may (read: totally will) lead into one of those Important Things from the future storyline.
So that’s awesome and fascinating but also tough, and it’s not made super easier by the fact that as One Esk, One Esk commands those dozens of bodies and is all, and then I sent my one body over here and she saw this and I sent my other body over here and she did that and also these six bodies were all doing these different things all at the exact same time. Also, it turns out that the Radchaai, whose spaceship One Esk/Breq was, don’t use gender in their speech, and so Breq just calls every person “she” or “her” regardless of anything, and spends a lot of time worrying about giving people the wrong gender designation because people get really touchy about that. But meanwhile everyone that Breq meets knows how to discern gender and so sometimes another character will go on at length about a “he” and Breq’s going on about a “she” and it’ll take six pages for you to figure out whether they’re talking about the same person or what. And then, when you get to the intrigue and subterfuge (subterfuge!), there’s so much of it it’ll make your head spin. I’m still not entirely clear on what happened at the end of the book, but hey, there’s a sequel coming out soon so maybe I’ll find out!
Recommendation: Totally worth a read if you are intrigued by any part of what I just said, though you’ll have to secure your thinking cap to your head with superglue.