Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
For millennia the Radch have dominated human space through the use of "ancillaries," AIs comprised of both ships and thousands of human bodies stripped of their individuality and used as totally loyal and fully synchronized soldiers. Using these implacable troops, bound by an endlessly syncretic religion and moral code concerned with purity, dominated by oligarchic Houses under the command of the clone-hive of the Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai, the Radch is an utterly ruthless expansionist empire fueled by the forcible annexation and cultural hegemonization of surrounding worlds.
But when cracks begin to appear in the seemingly immutable Radchaai system -- mutinies, an end to annexations, treaties with alien species -- and the mind of the Lord itself seems divided, a minor incident on a newly-conquered world spirals unexpectedly out of control, leaving one ancillary of the ship Justice of Toren the sole survivor. Thrust into sudden individuality, "Breq of the Gerentate" is left with nothing but a thirst for vengeance against the Lord and empire that betrayed it.
I learned in college that, according to some French feminist theorists, we will never have a truly equal society until we have a truly gender-neutral language. The languages we speak now are based on and shot through with theories and assumptions of patriarchy that in turn shape our very minds in sexist ways. For instance, the use of the male pronoun as the "default" or some languages use of different endings for males and females of the same profession. Whether or not that theory is true, I don't know, but this novel highlights the assumptions we make about gender without even realizing it. Breq has difficulty discerning gender in the humans around her, and her native language of Radchaai does not distinguish gender in any way in its grammar or vocabulary. Therefore, her default pronoun is "she/her." This leads the mind to imagine every character is female, even when it is sometimes revealed that they are in fact male. It is a surprisingly disconcerting mind-bend. I couldn't help but envision an all-female cast, even though I knew that several of them were male. How easy it is to play tricks on our perceptions through such minor inversions of language convention. It was quite the eye-opener for me. I've read about the phenomenon in nonfiction, but to see it in action in narrative form is something else entirely.
Beyond the thought-provoking language, Ancillary Justice is just an excellent read, with solid world-building and great action. According to the interview with the author that appears at the end of the book, it's the first in a "loose trilogy," and I am eagerly looking forward to the next installment.