Fiction Reviews

Translation State

(2023) Ann Leckie, Orbit, £20, hrdbk, 423pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51791-9


A decade after the justified hype around her debut Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie has sustained a remarkably high level of quality since. With the publication of Translation State, her sixth novel and her fifth within the Imperial Radch universe, that record continues.

Like Banks, Bujold or Cherryh before her, Leckie has found in her galactic setting a toy box big enough to meet her needs book after book, steadily expanding the setting and its lore as she goes. That said, Translation State works pretty well as a standalone, being for the most part small-scale and boutique in its scope. This plays well to the strengths in her writing – characterisation and an eye for detail – as well as to her recurring themes of identity and belonging.

In this novel we follow three characters whose lives converge on a space station dedicated to negotiations with the impossibly alien and extremely dangerous Presger. The Presger - an ominous presence off-stage throughout – have created a part-human race of Translators to speak on their behalf to other species.

Our first protagonist, Qven, is already on the station. A young translator-in-the-making who has brought shame on his clade (clan, family), they’re offered a shot at redemption. This comes in the form of Reet, a lonely young man from a remote system looking for answers about his origins. He in turn has been brought in by Enae, an amateur diplomat and detective who, it turns out, is very good at her job, much to her own surprise.

As much of Translation State turns upon the precise nature of the Presger translators and what they mean by ‘matching’, it’s hard to get too specific about the plot without spoiling some very well-done reveals. Since we’re dealing with space opera – albeit the highbrow kind – readers can expect lots of political intrigue, the odd attempted assassination, a fair amount of system-hopping, reasonably alien aliens and some hand-wavy psi-dimensional shenanigans.

Fans of previous Imperial Radch novels will also be pleased to see the Raadchai putting in the hours again as condescending supercilious nitwits, and there’s the usual fluidity with personal pronouns that has become an Ann Leckie trademark. Reet’s foster family, in particular, are great supporting characters, trying to support him as he uncovers his birth family’s past while also fearful they will lose him entirely.

Leckie is really out there on her own when it comes to telling these kind of stories in SF – of course they’re ideas-rich, a whole lot of fun and good genre work – but I can’t think of another author who can does what Leckie does so well on a grand yet intimate scale.

So then: Translation State is another very good example of Ann Leckie’s work in her established idiom. This also means that if you’ve not been won over by anything she’s done before , this is unlikely to be a game-changer for you. And you could argue it would be great to see her take some more risks with her next book.

But if you like what she does in her wheelhouse, which I very much do, then you’ll enjoy this a lot.

Tim Atkinson


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