Rating: 4.5/5

Book Content Warnings: mentions of cannibalism and dissection, racism, xenophobia, misgendering

Article Content Warnings: mentions of the above, major spoilers

Ann Leckie returns to the world of the Imperial Radch series in Translation State, a novel set after the events of Ancillary Mercy that is otherwise stand-alone, with all-new characters and an unexplored setting. As the novel opens, the whole universe is on edge: the Treaty with the Presger (also known simply as the treaty) is being renegotiated. It is an uncomfortable reminder that the Presger, a powerful and destructive extraterrestrial collective, are held in check only by the treaty and by Presger Translators (part-human, part-Presger beings bred specifically by the Presger to communicate with humans). 

The story is told from the perspective of three alternating point of view (POV) characters. Our first POV character, Enae, is given a largely ceremonial position in the Office of Diplomacy to get hir out of the way while hir household experiences a change in leadership. The renegotiation of the treaty makes a long-forgotten request from the Radchaai Translator’s Office relevant enough to be assigned to hir: a request to find an escaped Presger Translator. Against all odds, Enae finds Reet, our second POV character and a man who looks to be descended from the escaped Presger Translator.

Despite an ongoing civil war, the Radch (the intergalactic empire central to Leckie’s earlier books) still wields a lot of power when it comes to enforcing the treaty. Reet is kidnapped by Radchaai officials and taken to the Treaty Administration Facility, where he learns that he will need to “match” with another Presger Translator (a biological necessity for all Presger Translators). This “matching” is not a sexual or romantic relationship; instead, it is a kind of merging, where Reet and another translator would come together to become one person, one consciousness. Qven, our third POV character and a disgraced juvenile translator living at the facility, is his designated “match.” 

At the Treaty Administration Facility, a conclave of human and extraterrestrial leaders is considering whether the Republic of Two Systems (the sentient AIs from Leckie’s earlier books) should be allowed to sign the treaty.  Reet’s parents hear of his imprisonment and travel to the Treaty Administration Facility to pursue legal action and argue for his release. Enae, who feels responsible for Reet after alerting the Radchaai authorities about him, works to form a coalition to argue his case before the conclave. In the tense negotiation that follows, a few old friends (including Sphene and Translator Zeiat/Dlique) and many new ones guide these three protagonists in their pursuit of justice, friendship, love, and something more, something that is lost in translation. 

Despite brief (and graphic) mentions of cannibalism and dissection, this is on the whole a light, funny, and wholesome book about three people who are (in human years) adults undergoing huge changes in their lives. It’s a coming-of-age novel for all who need a reminder that our ongoing quest to find where we belong doesn’t stop when we turn twenty, or thirty, or even fifty. It is also a story of characters taking care of themselves, physically and emotionally. If you were expecting, picking up an Ann Leckie novel, to encounter an overly rational machine consciousness, you will be surprised (pleasantly surprised, I hope) by the level of introspection and emotional sensitivity these characters achieve. 

Even as they argue for their humanity before a conclave of (predominantly) extraterrestrials, these characters are some of Leckie’s most human. 

Young as they sometimes seem, these characters have trauma. As they pause to collect their thoughts, deal with emotional anxieties, and comfort their new-found friends and families, suspenseful scenes grind to a halt. Reet and Qven spend whole chapters in bed binge-watching TV while eating dumplings. If you are, by any chance, overwhelmed and overworked, I recommend this book as a chance to revel in characters who make and take time for themselves. Even as they argue for their humanity before a conclave of (predominantly) extraterrestrials, these characters are some of Leckie’s most human. 

In a book full of irrational human characters, there’s also a brief examination of conspiracy theories: their dangers, and who is most vulnerable to believing them. It is timely, a reminder that our contemporary world has provided many new social issues that require fictional exploration.

Translation State promised to introduce us to the unexplained and glorious enigma that is the Presger Translator. And it does: Qven’s childhood, particularly the way they are taught language and the way they perceive language, is fascinating, delightful, and at times hilarious. Leckie does an excellent job of subtly hinting at the Translators’ bioengineered world and their unique relationship with nature. Presger Translators go through six stages of life (all capitalized in the novel): Tiny, Little, Small, Middle, Edge, and Adult. Qven, an Edge (or juvenile) for most of the novel, describes their childhood in gory detail and with childish glee. Their fresh perspective on human language is fascinating, explaining (to some extent) the eccentric way Presger Translators communicate. The adult life of a Presger Translator, however, remains mysterious. Throughout the novel, Adult Presger Translators periodically try to explain their unique perception of reality (their twinned or sometimes tripled existence, their power to rearrange space) and find themselves at a loss for words. The life of an Adult Presger Translator, and of the Presger themselves, is apparently something that can’t really be explained using English—or Radchaai. The ambiguity is in turns amusing and frustrating, a puzzle that we are not given the pieces to solve.

It makes a strong case for the advantages of having a diverse group of representatives in power, particularly in the experiences and opportunities it can give people, young and old, looking for understanding and growth.

Language is an important backdrop to the novel, but the novel is not (as you might expect) really about the life of a translator. In painting more of the wider world outside the Radch, Leckie introduces us (briefly) to a host of new languages and cultures, including ethnic groups that live in diaspora or are descendants of refugees. In many situations, members of these groups experience systemic, individual, and even linguistic discrimination. However, once they reach the Treaty Administration Facility, our protagonists encounter a remarkably helpful and tolerant group of extraterrestrials and humans, many of whom have genuine (rather than ulterior) motives to stand up for their rights. Though fans of the series already know the Radch does not and should not represent all of humanity, this novel illustrates the plurality of cultures and interests that exist outside Radchaai space. Overall, it makes a strong case for the advantages of having a diverse group of representatives in power, particularly in the experiences and opportunities it can give people, young and old, looking for understanding and growth.

This host of new languages also includes a host of new pronouns and cultural perceptions of gender. Reet comes from a background where changing gender identity is accepted and expected, creating an affirming environment for Qven when they choose to try some new pronouns about halfway through the novel. If the Imperial Radch series so far has examined what happens when your language does not mark gender identity (the Radchaai language has only one pronoun, she/her) this novel demonstrates the way the boundaries of language can be broken. The Radchaai characters persist in using she/her pronouns for everyone, leading to some awkward misgenderings. However, non-Radchaai citizens effortlessly add new words for he/him, sie/hir, and e/em pronouns to their Radchaai speech to honor the chosen pronouns of their friends and family. 

Reet and Qven’s match is a kind of subplot, much like romantic relationships are in other novels. Initially, it looks like Reet and Qven will be forced into a situation where they have no choice but to match. According to the Adult Presger Translators, if they don’t match with each other, they will eventually feel compelled to match with some random nearby human, or (in the worst case scenario) die a very painful death. There is an element of body horror to it, reminiscent of ‘evil hive minds’ like the Borg, but the relationship is generally considered a cooperative one. Rather than one personality dominating or absorbing the other, “matched pairs” share the skills and knowledge of both bodies. Thankfully, Sphene comes up with a possible alternative to Reet and Qven’s match, allowing Reet and Qven to choose to match with each other voluntarily in the end. 

The concept of matching fits well with what we know of the Presger; it’s a way of creating a collective consciousness like the Presger seem to be. However, it’s hard to imagine what the real-world analog to matching could be: perhaps an arranged marriage? When they first meet, the Adult Presger Translators leave Reet and Qven alone to bond in a series of scenes that are generally really cute (Reet and Qven have a lot to teach each other) but have an uncomfortable subtext. Refreshingly, Reet and Qven themselves are very careful about consent and respecting each other’s feelings, but the adults around them seem to consider matching normal, or even something to be celebrated. While their matching is ultimately a positive event, it could easily have been heartbreaking and disturbing if Reet and Qven were forced to match without being consenting and ready. That possibility isn’t directly addressed, and points to a darker side of Presger and Presger Translator culture that we haven’t yet seen. 

With the treaty and the Radch itself still in danger of falling apart, all three have a lot to contribute to a universe in crisis. 

The ending of the novel leaves a number of unexplained questions—the future of Enae, the life of Reet and Qven together, and the outcome of the conclave—which leads me to expect, if not a direct sequel, at least a return of these characters in the future. With the treaty and the Radch itself still in danger of falling apart, all three have a lot to contribute to a universe in crisis. 

Translation State offers an exciting peek into a rapidly changing universe, tempting us with glimpses of the Presger’s true nature and grounding us with lovable, refreshing characters. No longer just for tea drinkers, this series now has something for everybody: power and politicking, friendship and found family, cannibalism and comfort food. 

Ann Leckie is the author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel Ancillary Justice. She has also published short stories in Subterranean MagazineStrange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition edited by Rich Horton.

Ann has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

You can contact her at ann@annleckie.com

Translation State can be purchased here.

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