January 5, 2016

Review: Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Warning: This will contain spoilers for all three books in the Imperial Radch series.)

This book is the last in what I think is one of the finest science fiction trilogies of this century. The first book, Ancillary Justice, rightfully won every major award in the field in 2014--the Hugo, the Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke, Locus (First Novel) and British Science Fiction Assocation awards. The second book, Ancillary Sword, was regarded as a bit of a letdown by many--the dreaded "middle book" syndrome--but I was one of a minority who actually liked it better than Justice. It was a quieter, more introspective story, and it was definitely going in another direction than the splashier, steeped in ideas and worldbuilding tone of Justice. There are two very different threads throughout both of these books, and when I finished with Ancillary Sword I took a deep breath and crossed my fingers, hoping Ancillary Mercy would be the book to bring it on home.

Ann Leckie has done just that. In spades.

It's only now that I've read all three books that I can see the themes the author has woven throughout her narrative. Indeed, the books' titles sum up these themes pretty well. On the surface, you'd think they merely reflect the three classes of warships found in the Radch empire: Justice, Sword and Mercy. But as with most everything in these books, there's deeper layers of meaning, seen only when the totality of the story is laid out. In the first book, the final surviving fragment of the artificial intelligence of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, our protagonist Breq, is fired up--indeed, well-nigh obsessed--with exacting her revenge, and justice for the people slaughtered by her ship's destruction, upon the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. As a character, Breq is still very much an "ancillary," flat and stoical and emotionless, looking at the world through an AI's eyes. At the end of this book, Breq casts her lot with the more pacifistic side of Anaander Mianaai's fractured consciousness (and yes, I know I'm greatly oversimplifying the plot), partly because, I think, she begins to realize that as much as she wants to, she cannot destroy the Lord of the Radch. How can one ancillary bring down a ruler with thousands of different bodies spread across as many star systems?

In Ancillary Sword, we take a complete left turn: Breq is given her own ship and command in a remote system far away from Anaander Mianaai, and through solving the problems and weathering the crises in this story, she learns to be both more than human (because she doesn't want to be human) and more than the A.I. she once was. (Ann Leckie also begins to display the puckish sense of humor that will come into full flower in the third book, i.e. Athoek Station's penis festival.) The book ends with Breq knowing that she will never have what she had as Justice of Toren, but realizing that what she now has may just be enough. The "sword" has been sharpened, and is ready to take flight on its own.

In Ancillary Mercy, the themes that have been woven into the story from the start burst into the open: the treatment of the AIs by the Radchaai Empire, and Breq's fight to, not necessarily destroy Anaander Mianaai (since it's abundantly clear by now that she can't do that), but to divorce herself, her ship and friends and ultimately all the AIs in the Empire, from the Lord of the Radch, and to carve out a space where she, and they, will no longer be property, but people. To do this, she enlists the gun that has been sitting on the mantlepiece since the first book: the alien race the Presger (still unseen at the end of the trilogy, but as far as I can gather some kind of fantastically technologically advanced hive mind), the one thing that scares the crap out of Anaander Mianaai.

(In fact, in the climax to the book, there are a few almost throwaway lines that are among the most poignant of the entire series. It's during the final showdown with Anaander Mianaai, and Sphene, another ancillary from an ancient warship that has fallen in with Breq, is upbraiding the Lord of the Radch.

"Usurper," replied Sphene, with an eerily bright smile. "If I were to punch you in the face right now, or maybe throttle you for a minute or two, would that affect this extremely stupid agreement with my cousin? I want to so very much, so much that I'm not sure I can put it into words for you, but Justice of Toren will take it very badly if I endanger Athoek Station."

"Can I be a cousin, too?" asked Station, from the wall console.

"Of course you can, Station," I said. "You always have been."

Breq, the Sword, is indeed here, kicking ass and taking names; but true to the title of the book, she is asking for--and showing--Mercy. Mercy for herself, her family aboard her ship, and her expanded family of AIs. She demands the alien Presger grant the AIs the status of "Significant", which will in effect free them from Radchaai slavery. The book, and the trilogy, ends on this hopeful note, and also ends with one of the best feelings a work of fiction can give the reader: that these people are real and alive in some alternate dimension, and their lives will go on far beyond the point when the last page is finally turned.

(Of course, there's a lot more to the final book, particularly humor. As in laugh-out-loud in several places, involving Sphene, the Presger translator Zeiat, tea, and fish sauce. I think most every reader I've talked to would pay a great deal of money for the Continuing Adventures of Sphene and Zeiat.)

This book--indeed, all three books--demands to be reread, to pick out the things so skillfully placed that can only be seen and understood with knowledge of the entire trilogy. In many ways, it's old fashioned space opera with a distinctly modern edge: themes of gender, identity, self-determination, of finding your place and fighting for it, of demanding to live your life on your terms, not anyone else's. It's just masterfully done, braiding everything together to such a satisfying conclusion. These books are the best I have read in a long, long time.

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