Translation State by Ann Leckie science fiction book reviewsTranslation State by Ann Leckie science fiction book reviewsTranslation State by Ann Leckie

With Translation State, which was nominated for a Best Novel of 2023 Nebula Award, Ann Leckie brings us back to the universe adjacent to the Radchaai Empire, which is still embroiled in a civil war. This book directs its attention to the Presger Translators and their mysterious origin race, the Presger Themselves.

I liked Translation State, and about halfway through, one of the characters was suddenly in such jeopardy I could not put the book down. While the “set up” of the final challenge felt similar to Leckie’s book Provenance, the task two of the characters, Qvet and Reet, must complete is uniquely and distinctively associated with the Presger.

Leckie uses three viewpoint characters. If you struggle with different pronouns, be aware—there are more than two pronouns employed here. (Within the book, the Radchaai Ambassador constantly misgenders people and is constantly corrected. I snickered every time.)

Three characters, whose lives at first glance could not be more different, converge; Qvet, a juvenile Presger Translator, who is being trained to work safely among humans. Qvet rebels internally and seeks escape. Enae, who uses the pronoun “sie/hir,” has hir whole life change when the obnoxious relative sie cared for dies. Enae is taken care of financially and offered a “make-work” job, mainly out of pity. The people who offer Enae this job don’t know who they are dealing with, and Enae plunges into hir task of finding the trail of a fugitive who disappeared two hundred years ago. Reet, a mechanic who uses “he/his,” is an orphan who was adopted, and never feels like he fits in anywhere. Reet makes it a point to get along with people and has almost completely suppressed the fantasies he has about biting, stripping skin from flesh and tearing open flesh to see what’s inside.

Imperial Radch by Ann Leckie (Author)I was captivated by Qvet, because here was a character who seemed truly nonhuman. I didn’t remember for a while that the Presger Translators are not the Presger, and that in fact Qvet’s DNA is mostly human. Translation State isn’t a mystery and Reet’s origin is revealed pretty early. The story is largely a diplomatic/legal battle about identity, self-determination, and rights—another story that asks the question, “Who gets to decide who is a person?” This legal battle plays out through the treaty between the Presger and all the other space-faring races. (In the book, the argument couched as “who is human?”)

I enjoyed the diplomatic battle, and was happy to see Sphene from the RADCHAI EMPIRE books make an appearance. (Sphene also misgenders everyone.) A terrorist plot and the dimensional unraveling of a space station bring urgency to the story, but primarily, I cared about the outcomes for our three protagonists, whose stories are tightly braided together.

The Presger never appear, and characters remind us that, functionally, the Presger Translators are a different race than their originators. While both share a desire to maintain the treaty, it seems that the Presger Themselves view the treaty in a different way than even the Translators do. Presger “science” looks a lot like magic, although a character pops up to hand-wave it, connecting it with star-gate technology. Young Qvet was kept ignorant intentionally, and her language shifts often to adolescent concerns and fears. So does Reet’s, and he’s in his thirties. This is explained, but I still found it distracting, more for Reet than Qvet. I have to say, I thought “curl up on the bed and watch Pirate Exiles of the Death Moon” was more than a nod to the MURDERBOT series.

The most baffling thing to me is the mechanics of Reet’s origin. The story leads us to his origin quickly, but no timeframes and details are provided, leaving me to do a lot of filling-in. One or two sentences of explanation (even allowing for the total veil of secrecy over the Presger) would have made me more confident in the text.

Still, remember that I said I couldn’t put the book down. The story swept me right up and held onto me, even when I had questions. And plenty of questions are still out there, ready for further books to address them. What are the Presger? What will happen with the Radchaai? Will Radchaai-controlled space ever have good coffee? I eagerly await the answers.

Published in June 2023. Qven was created to be a Presger translator. The pride of their Clade, they always had a clear path before them: learn human ways, and eventually, make a match and serve as an intermediary between the dangerous alien Presger and the human worlds. The realization that they might want something else isn’t “optimal behavior”. It’s the type of behavior that results in elimination. But Qven rebels. And in doing so, their path collides with those of two others. Enae, a reluctant diplomat whose dead grandmaman has left hir an impossible task as an inheritance: hunting down a fugitive who has been missing for over 200 years. And Reet, an adopted mechanic who is increasingly desperate to learn about his genetic roots—or anything that might explain why he operates so differently from those around him. As a Conclave of the various species approaches—and the long-standing treaty between the humans and the Presger is on the line—the decisions of all three will have ripple effects across the stars. Masterfully merging space adventure and mystery, and a poignant exploration about relationships and belonging, Translation State is a triumphant new standalone story set in the celebrated Imperial Radch universe.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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