The story concerns Breq, who used to be the starship Justice of Toren. As a starship, she had control over thousands of “ancillary” bodies, as soldiers and crew – but when the starship was blown up, only this one survived. Breq is, understandably, out for revenge against the person responsible for blowing up the starship. More of a hindrance than a help is a human ex-officer of the Justice of Toren, who she finds in the course of her quest and feels obliged to help. As the quest for information continues, it seems that the responsibility for Justice of Toren’s destruction goes right to the top of the Radch Empire. In other words, it wasn’t enemy action that blew the ship up, but a conspiracy within her own people.
What brought the novel some notoriety is Breq’s use of pronouns. Breq comes from a culture, and uses a language, that does not differentiate between male and female. She’s perfectly aware that one person is male, and another female, but the way Ann Leckie chose to show her indifference to gender differences was to call everyone “she”. We’re so used to the use of “he” to describe people that the word becomes invisible, so it’s a salutary shock to the system to see everyone described as “she”. I’m pretty sure Seivarden, the ex-officer who becomes her sidekick, is male – but I’m not so sure about Lt. Awn, the human officer that Justice of Toren was most fond of, back when she was a starship. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Lt. Awn would do the same things whether male or female, and Justice of Toren would feel the same protectiveness over her.
There are lots of other things to enjoy here, too, like Justice of Toren’s love of music (she used to be a choir, through her ancillaries), the intricate religious system, and the importance of tea.
This is also the first book in a trilogy – I’ve read the second, Ancillary Sword, where Breq becomes the Captain of her own ship and deals with a conspiracy on a space station (which reminded me in places of the TV series Babylon 5 – in a good way), and I have yet to get round to reading Ancillary Mercy, though I’m looking forward to it.