September 14, 2023

Review: Translation State

Translation State Translation State by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book takes place in Leckie's Imperial Radch universe, but it does not further Breq's story (although there is a crossover of a couple of characters, notably the artificial intelligence/ship Sphene). Instead, we have three new characters and their stories which shed a bit of light on the mysterious alien race the Presger and their Presger Translators.

If you're a big fan of Breq from the Imperial Radch trilogy, as I am, this might seem a bit disappointing, but give it a chance. These characters definitely grew on me as the story progressed. We have Enae, who after the death of her grandmother who dominated her all her life, is cast out into the galaxy to track down a person who disappeared two hundred years ago. No one expects her to find this person; it's basically makework to get her off her home planet for political purposes. But Enae is stubborn and determined, and ends up finding the person (or rather the descendant of the person) that no one thought she would find. This ends up setting the engine of the plot in motion and getting Enae in a whole lot of trouble.

Because the person she was sent to find turns out to be a Presger Translator. We haven't found out much about the mysterious, murderous and all-powerful Presger as yet (only that the treaty negotiated a thousand years ago by the Radchaai is seemingly the only thing keeping them in check), but quite a bit about Presger Translators is revealed here. This is all a bit icky to say the least--someone with an aversion to body horror might not be able to cope with it. Apparently the Presger Translators are genetically engineered and vat-grown artificial beings made of equal parts Presger and human DNA. As they grow they become more and more cannabalistic until the time of their "matching," when two individuals merge (literally as in melting into each other) to become a new singular person in two bodies. This is so one part of the new person can be sent to negotiate with alien species while the other remains with the Presger.

One of the two other protagonists, Reet, is unbeknownst to him a Presger Translator, discovered adrift on a ship as an infant and adopted and raised by a human couple. As the story unfolds he begins to manifest the oozing flesh-consuming traits of a Presger Translator, and after Enae finds him and everybody realizes what he really is, he is kidnapped to bring him back to the Presger so he can be properly matched. The person they're trying to match Reet with is the story's third protagonist, Qven, a juvenile Presger Translator who has been violated by an attempted forcible matching and doesn't want to go through the procedure at all as a result.

This story does not have the galaxy-spanning stakes of the Imperial Radch trilogy. The stakes are smaller here and very personal, so the characters have to be complex enough to make up for the relative lack of action (although once all three characters come together at a Presger station to decide Reet's fate, the plot ramps up a bit). For the most part this is the case. All three characters have satisfying arcs. Qven works through her trauma and decides to match with Reet after all; Reet accepts what he is; and Enae breaks free from the shadow of her grandmother and begins to become her own person.

Some might be disappointed with this because the Imperial Radch trilogy made such a splash and Breq is such a memorable character. However, even though this story is quieter, I found it compelling on its own terms. Certainly the Presger become even more of a nightmare when one sees what they have done to their Translators. There are themes of identity and gender, and exploring what makes a person. This book isn't as good as the Imperial Radch trilogy (then again, what is?) but it's a worthy story on its own.

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