Review: Translation State by Anne Leckie

by Sara
Translation State Book Review

Those who follow sci-fi awards and best-of lists may already be familiar with Anne Leckie’s space opera trilogy, Imperial Radch. Her debut novel Ancillary Justice won – among others – the Hugo,  Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Ten years later, Translation State introduces a lovely new cast of  characters and delves deeper into known space’s tense relationships with the Presgr. 

The Summary

Enae’s cantankerous gradmother has passed away, leaving behind no prospects for her grandchild  except for a twenty-year-old mystery nobody expects to be solved. Reet watches television in between  shifts repairing repair bots, trying not to think about cutting people open. Qven catches a glimpse of a  possible future that gives them doubts about the seemingly inescapable task they’ve been raised for. The treaty protecting human ships from wholesale destruction from the alien Presgr is up for renegotiation. Finding the place where you belong is difficult when you don’t seem to fit anywhere, but political maneuverings that could dictate the future of the galaxy can always be put on hold to make a  few new friends, right? 

My Review 

Translation State has aliens, friendly and foe-ly! It asks questions like ‘what do you do when your grandmother gambles away the family fortune?’ ‘What do you do when you’re getting mysteriously slimy and people think you’re a descendant of a vicious, long-lost royal family?’ ‘What do you do when you’re going to melt into a puddle of goo?’ And, most importantly, ‘what do you do when people keep telling you to shut up about your pesky human (and alien?) rights and let the grownups blow each other up?’ 

As a reader, I’m drawn to inventive, immersive worlds and interesting characters first among story elements, and Translation State was a treat. There are three point of view characters and I love them all. Stories with multiple POVs usually leave me bored and exasperated, skipping sections to get back to the one character I like the best, but not so here. Enae, Reet, and Qven are delightful, each interesting in their own ways and bringing out new sides of each other when combined. Reet, in particular, is at risk of being a stock tortured bad boy, but his frank admiration of Enae’s understated social skills and his gentle, loaded friendship with Qven save him from the realm of cliché. I also enjoyed Enae’s surprising fortitude and Qven’s bravery, cementing them all as characters who made 400-some pages fly by.  

Translation State delves deeper into the already-established setting, though there are a number of new locations and species to keep things fresh. We get a look inside the world of the enigmatic Translators, an outsider’s perspective of the Radch Empire, and see the repercussions of the political upheaval at the end of the Imperial Radch trilogy. This story focuses more on political and personal drama than on combat, though action and mortal peril still kept me on my toes. 

One of the unique things about Leckie’s science fiction is her exploration of pronouns and gender. The Radch language has no gendered personal pronoun, and no concept of distinguishing people by gender, which is translated by using “she” for  everyone. The biggest adjustment to reading Radch was realizing how ubiquitous the default “he” is in  fiction. In Translation State, however, Qven uses they/them pronouns for most of the story, and Enae uses sie/hir. If you, like me, are unused to this, it takes a little time to acclimate, but doesn’t detract from the reading experience. In-story, nobody fusses about pronouns or gender presentation, besides the Ranchaii’s confusion about how to tell genders apart in the first place. 

As for elements that appeal to me personally, I’m partial to platonic relationships over romantic, and Leckie delivers. Naming no names, the relationship that kicks off near the middle of the book is something I particularly enjoyed, even amidst the suspense and strong worldbuilding. It hits a lot of the same beats as a romance, and has a similar level of intensity for setting-specific reasons, placing them far beyond “just friends” without sex or romance needing to entering into the equation. 

Overall, Translation State has been a highlight of the books I’ve read this year, and one I’m eager to put on my shelf. Five stars! | Amazon | Goodreads

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