I didn’t like this book. I know it’s won a ton of prestigious awards and has many glorious reviews, so my negative opinion isn’t likely to damage its reputation. That’s why I feel free to rant. Here is what I didn’t like and why.
The story structure
The story is told in two timelines simultaneously. It’s like two separate stories. One happened twenty years after another, but the author alternates those chapters, and the constant time jumps are jarring. The earlier timeline seems one huge back story, told in flashbacks, a technique frowned upon among writing teachers. Yes, what happened twenty years ago affected the protagonist profoundly and put her on her current course, but the book would’ve read better if it was divided into two chronological parts; the first part relating the first story line, and the second following the second one. As it is, the narrative flow is bumpy at best.
Some reviewers compared this novel to the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. I disagree. There is no comparison. Bujold’s stories and her hero are warm and utterly human, very sympathetic. They tugged at my heart. Leckie’s story and her hero Breq are gelid and alien. Breq is a robot, a blend of a human body and an AI. She doesn’t have emotions, except maybe anger. She is an intelligent weapon that has lost her handler and her purpose for existence. And what is her new purpose? Revenge for the loss of her favorite handler.
No noble goals for this hero. She doesn’t want to save the world or help anyone. She doesn’t put any value on anyone’s life, including her own. Her motivations are as cerebral as her actions and as lifeless as vacuum. With no humanity, the only guiding factor for her is her brain. Still, she camouflages as a human while lying and killing other humans without compulsion. If they stand in her way, they must be eliminated.
There are parallels between Breq and Seven from Star Trek Voyager or Data from Star Trek TNG, but both Seven and Data are much more human. They want to become human. They want to learn emotions. Breq doesn’t have that goal, and frankly, she repulses me by her unrelenting coldness.
You might have noticed that I’m using the pronoun ‘she’ while talking about the hero of this novel. It’s intentional. The world of this hero doesn’t have gender distinctions. For Breq and her compatriots, everyone is a neuter, and they use the pronoun ‘she’ indiscriminately. For some reason, it irritated me.
Another irritating factor: the leader of this sci-fi autocratic world has multiple bodies. She is a tyrant, of course, and her cloned bodies are everywhere, counted in hundreds if not more. I just imagined Hitler multiplied by seven hundred and was horrified. I don’t want to live in such a world and don’t want to read about it. It’s disgusting.
The entire civilization Breq belongs to is military-minded, expanding and destroying everyone in their space path, annexing one world after another, with atrocities so deep, nobody notices them anymore. Of course, Breq kills. Everyone in this world kills. It’s easy for them: no compassion, almost no humanity left even in those whose bodies are fully human. They all seem like robots in their behavioral patterns, conditioned to obey their orders and not think for themselves. And every deviation from this pattern is severely punished.
I also dislike the naming convention of this world. Many names sound as strange as tongue twisters, and some sound similar, confusing the reader. For instance, there are two characters, both fairly important, named Awn and Awer. They often appear on the same page. Couldn’t the author come up with two names a little bit different?
With the ruthless world (see above) in the background and her protagonist a machine inside a human body, the author spends pages upon pages moralizing about life and death and the choices people make. To kill or not to kill? Is it really a question for most of us? The author is looking for ethical values, for compassion, but those haven’t been programmed into her AIs nor into the human characters of her world. The story doesn’t support her intended message, no matter how virtuous she wants to sound.
The only positive aspect of this book for me is: it’s written very well. It had a very good editor.