This is my second time around in reading this book. I knew I needed to reread it before reading Ancillary Sword. You can read my original review over here.
I still found the almost exclusive use of ‘she’ to be quite disconcerting, and I feel like I noticed those few times that someone is ‘properly’ gendered more than I did the first time I read it. I still found myself trying to pick gender clues from behaviour and descriptions, which of course says something about me… and also quite a lot about Leckie, since I really don’t think she enables such a reading of anyone. I have absolutely no clue what sort of genitalia Lieutenant Awn had.
Because I wasn’t so staggered by the gender issue this time I believe I felt the imperialism/colonialism aspect more. The Radch is a monumentally arrogant civilisation – and I felt very keenly those discussions about how such a sentence would be constructed in their language, since the word for ‘civilised’ IS the word FOR their civilisation, and for themselves: Radch. So this arrogance, this narrow vision, is constructed into their language – while I’m not a complete subscriber to the notion that language creates reality, it certainly has an impact on our perception of such. Leckie herself notes the similarities between the Radch and the Roman Empire, which is useful both for the yes and the no. Make new peoples citizens, subsume/ align their gods with your, but use ‘corpse soldiers’ to help make it work and have a bunch of apparently random cultural hang-ups.
I loved the gloves thing this time. I could drive myself mad trying to figure out how a culture develops a horror of bare hands except in the most intimate of circumstances.
I’m not sure I noticed the descriptions of skin colour last time (oh the advantages of being white). Much like the people of Earthsea, the Radch are dark-skinned… which is neither here nor there in the book’s greater scheme of plot and character and theme, but is nonetheless important in the greater scheme of, you know, the world.
Another aspect I feel I appreciate more deeply this time around is the religion. Everyone, basically, is religious. All of the ships are named after religious figures; all of the decades of soldiers likewise. There is an expectation that senior soldiers will pray and cast the omens each morning. Each new planet has their own religion whose parallels with the Radch’s own must be found – and there’s even discussion of a problematic, exclusively-monotheistic bunch who have caused issues in the past, who basically appear atheist to the Radch: either horrifying or bemusing, depending on your attitude. Not everyone is especially devout, but there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that religion belongs in humanity and in space and everywhere there are humans. This is refreshing.
Finally, the plot. Even though I did have some memory of how everything was going to play out (that notorious memory of mine), I still found it gripping. The massacre of civilians to the death of Awn, the gradual change in Seivarden, the drama at Omaugh: it’s not the most fast-paced space opera I’ve ever read, but it is definitely compelling and in no way just a vehicle for discussing Important Issues.