I've been having a hell of a time deciding what I want to say about this book, and how I want to rate it. I'm still not certain, even after a good discussion with my book club and talking to a few friends. It's just one of those reads that ends up being very complicated for me to sort out my thoughts and feelings, which is not a bad thing.
I put off reading this book for a while because I had heard it was "difficult" due to lots of world-building, invented vocabulary, and gender bending pronouns. I was expecting a dense hard sci-fi book that would take a long time to get into (and I'll admit I have to be in a pretty specific mood to enjoy books like that). Imagine my delight when I was sucked in from page one. While the pronouns did take some adjustment (everyone is referred to as She) I really appreciated the way that authorial device made me examine how easy it can be to assign the male gender by default while reading. Once I got used to the language this book was an engaging and decently paced adventure.
My favorite thing about this book, by far, was the world building and ideas. The Radch are just different enough to be intriguing, but still similar enough to be strikingly familiar. The expansion of their empire, and attitudes towards others, echoes much of humanity's colonial history. There is also a good amount of spirituality blended into the mix that you don't often see in military sci-fi stories. In addition to the world building Leckie does some really special things with POV that I've never seen done quite as masterfully. Her ability to bring a multi-bodied individual to life was excellent.
For all those reasons and more I can see why this book swept the awards season last year, and I'm very glad I read this book. So then why not five stars? Simply put: the plot. I wanted so much more out of the plot. It was one of those things where if I scrutinized what was happening and why I started to dislike the characters (which I genuinely liked) because it made them feel stupid. The book even seemed to be aware of this, which didn't solve the issue for me but instead deepened my frustration. I'm willing to accept that this "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" hand waving works perfectly well for me on other books, but this one demanded that I think. It's a smart book, focusing on big issues, and it's written well. It's sort of begging to be examined. And that was where it fell apart somewhat for me.
Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. My book club used the phrase "mind bending" repeatedly to describe it, and I don't entirely disagree. It's doing a lot of revolutionary things, and it's doing most of them very well. It will make you think. It will transport you. Just don't expect to be as blown away by the plotting as you are by the world Leckie creates so masterfully.