The main character is a robot with multiple points of view that refers to herself as "she" : she is Justice of Toren, or the artificial intelligence of a starship; she is Justice of Toren One Esk, or a twenty-unit ancillary serving a Lieutenant; and she is Breq, a single ancillary that has lost all other connections. Ancillaries are dead soldiers that have been modified to work as many units linked to one starship or in this case, Justice of Toren. Basically, the main character is in a human or ship's body but has artificial intelligence. I didn't "get" this out until well into the book which is why I think my two young readers abandoned it. Breq is in the current story and on a mission to kill the creator of the universe while the alternating story is about One Esk that is serving a Lieutenant in a city in outerspace. The robot is detached from events and doesn't express emotions except anger now and then. However as the story progresses the robot's actions show that she cares for others and is committed to doing the right thing.
The setting and world building are complete with religion, politics, and social structures. The setting takes place thousands of years in the future with one Radchaai ruler and an autocratic government. This ruler has lived for thousands of years and controlled human beings making the Radch citizens believe they are superior to others. I never got a good grasp on how the ruler, Anaander Mianaai, lived so long. She's portrayed as human and leans on the Justice of Toren's artificial intelligence to make decisions, but she can't be human to have lived as long. Maybe she's alien? I probably missed something here. The Radch economy is not clear, but the society and its classes are divided and distinct creating a caste system of sorts. I didn't have a clear sense of the Gerentate people where Breq is from except her planet is in another galaxy. The discs Breq carries that have holograms of people are not explained in great detail, but they hint at the Gerentate's religion and her personal background. They left me with several unanswered questions. Perhaps the sequel will address some of my questions.
Breq's narrative is detached emotionally which might make it hard for some readers to connect with her. Her actions show compassion and she even puzzles over why she does something that seems emotional. Toward the end it seems that human beings have affected her a bit more and she expresses anger and indignation at treatment that puts her in an uncivilized class. The fact that Breq collects songs and sings to calm herself was enough to make her more "human" for me. She's definitely a robot, but has human characteristics. I did find her hard to visualize along with the other characters which has more to do with the authors creation of a culture that doesn't use gender pronouns to show what sex the characters are in the plot. At one point I thought I read a description of One Esk having three mouths, but later my brain kept dropping the extra mouths as she showed more human characteristics.
Throughout the story almost everyone is referred to as "she." I found myself a bit confused at first and wondering if it was going to be an androgynous society, but then found it interesting how my brain kept forcing characters into gender groups. I found I couldn't stick with the androgynous society. Later the author shows how the Radchaai society does use gender pronouns and once in a while, (not every time), the sex of some characters is revealed; several whom I had originally thought were the opposite sex. Rather than be annoying, it became fun and surprising. In our society, gender identity is a formation of social identity. One of the most unique aspects of this book is that it takes away this socialization process. I admire the author's risk-taking and originality that actually works throughout the novel as a whole. I did have problems with it at first because I felt so disoriented, but that reinforces the whole point, doesn't it? Gender identity is such a strong component of societies that if it is taken away it is discombobulating.
An ongoing theme is the examination of being civilized or uncivilized. The Radchaai are the oppressors with one ruler that doesn't value human life. People are easily killed and disposed of if they oppose the leader. They consider themselves superior and tolerate different religions from conquered space colonies. Control is based on military might and ancillaries are a way to accomplish stability in society. Breq is designed to only follow orders given by Mianaai and it puts her in a unique position as an enforcer and an outcast because she is considered "uncivilized" by the Radchaai. The fantasy world is closest to the Roman empire that conquered nations but let people keep their religion and language making integration with Roman society less difficult. However, the Romans received more privileges based on their citizenship and considered themselves superior to other conquered cultures. On a side note - I wonder if Ann Leckie made all the pronouns a "she" or feminine to make a point that women can be science fiction writers in a mostly male dominated field. Just a thought. This ambitious book is nothing short of unique even with its flaws. The sequel is sitting on my desk. Can't wait to read it this weekend.