Ancillary Mercy: Marion loves it. Stuart doesn’t.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAncillary Mercy by Ann Leckie science fiction book reviewsAncillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I loved Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, but as I got to the end of Ancillary Sword, I began to have some doubts. As good as the books were, and as good as Ann Leckie is, I didn’t see how she could possibly wrap up such an elaborate story. I should have had more faith! Ancillary Mercy completes Breq’s tale, resolves the story of the intelligent Ships and tells a bit more about what’s beyond the Ghost Gate, all without leaving the Athoek system or even Athoek Station, where the bulk of the story takes place.

Ancillary Mercy picks up days or maybe hours after the ending of Ancillary Sword, when Breq gets some bad news via her Ship; The Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, or a faction of her, has taken the Tstur system. It’s the faction that “has no love” for Breq. In the meantime, Breq is still fighting a political battle on Athoek Station, where both the station governor and a powerful religious leader work to block every reform Breq attempts. Breq has offered her sentient Ship, the Mercy of Kalr, the ability of self-determination, and the Ship is considering it. Then, on the Station, the governor tells Breq they have discovered an ancillary from another Ship – a Ship no one knows, and one that may be on the other side of the Ghost Gate, in non-Radchaai space.

This is only the beginning of the story. Breq must also deal with another emissary or Translator sent by the Presger. Translator Zeiat is the source of most of this book’s humor, and the book is very funny. She’s funny. Leckie balances on a tightrope; lots of what Zeiat says is zany humor but much of it reveals a lot about the Presger; specifically, it reveals just how little the Radch truly understand this alien race and the treaty they’ve made with them. Zeiat is not a zany sidekick; she is integral to this story.

I thought everything worked here, but once or twice I thought I could see the bones of the plot poking up through the textured, intricate fabric of this world. One or two things happen too coincidentally and in one specific case, a reticent character suddenly chooses an odd time to provide a backstory. Still, I was completely sucked in by the suspense and the stakes, and charmed, again, by the details that define the Radch – a language that uses formal gestures as well as words, their tea fixation, the gloves… the Imperial Radch and their beliefs about other cultures are deeply expressed in these details.

The political upheaval in the story is a direct result of Leckie’s most original creation here; the idea of distributed consciousness. The ancillaries are cloned beings, slaved to a Ship – usually nothing more biological than nodes for the ship. Lord Minaani has used the idea of distributed consciousness for her own ends, basically creating several versions of herself. Most people would wonder how you possibly win a civil war when an emperor is at war with herself, but Breq does not fall for this false dichotomy. She trusts no aspect of Minaani, and thus she approaches the problem obliquely. It is still a weighty problem, and her chances of success are slim.

In this book, my sympathies migrated to the Ships and the Stations, even more than to Breq; sentient AIs, loyal, idiosyncratic, conflicted, have their own likes and dislikes, feuds and losses. No one understands this better than Breq, who used to be a Ship herself. Mercy of Kalr has a definite voice and a point of view; Sphene is the same, but the AI who controls Athoek Station was my favorite, emerging as a powerful character whose goal is to protect its residents. The ways Station finds to get around its own programming are fascinating.

The world-building never falters. There are many scenes where people sit and wait, but usually Leckie loads those scenes with important conversations. In the best books, a hero changes things, and making those changes, is changed in the process. The changes Breq creates in one small system ripple back onto her. Ancillary Mercy is a satisfying book and a triumphant end to a truly original space opera.

~Marion DeedsImperial Radch (3 book series) Kindle Edition


Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie science fiction book reviewsAncillary Justice swept the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, and Locus awards in 2013. It was an excellent book, filled with fascinating ideas, unique characters (including distributed AI and human minds), elaborate world-building, a baroque galactic empire, and an exciting two-timeline plot. After building expectations sky-high, in Ancillary Sword Leckie inexplicably decided to narrow down the scope of things to a single narrative, single timeline, and a single planet and space station. Moreover, that entire book became a social justice crusade for the undergarden dwellers of the station and tea-plantation workers on the planet, with more dialogue and tea-drinking than actual events or action.

I can’t remember having been more disappointed between one book and the next in a series, so I was reserving judgment until the third book, Ancillary Mercy, to evaluate the trilogy as a whole. If it returned to the bigger themes of Ancillary Justice and addressed the two biggest plot elements I would be happy, namely the galactic civil war between different aspect of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, and the treaty with the mysterious and powerful alien Presger.

To my great disappointment, nothing of importance was resolved, and the levels of interminable dialogue and tea-drinking went through the roof. I actually found myself fuming every time the word “tea” was mentioned, which must have been hundreds of times. Any time there was an impending crisis, everyone stopped to have a cup of tea. It’s only been a few days since I finished this book, and already I cannot remember almost a single event, just talk, talk, talk amongst various factions of ancillaries, humans, and interpreters for the Presger (the only humorous bit), and the main characters Breq, Seivarden, Tisawat, etc. It’s quite an achievement to write a book this intricate and still have nothing exciting happen.

This third volume features more tantalizing hints of relationships and attractions among the characters while continuing to refer to all the characters as “she” or “her.” My suspicions are now confirmed that while this may seem innovative on the surface as a way of questioning gender conventions and preconceptions, it serves no real purpose in the story itself. In other words, it’s a gimmick that actually avoids any real exploration of what gender means, how it defines or does not define our characters, and the nature of sexual relationships.

In such a rigidly hierarchical society like the Radchaai, if it really places such little importance on gender, then it must be as inconsequential as whether we are right-handed or left-handed. But I just cannot buy that concept — unless gender and sexual reproduction are completely removed or transformed in this far-future empire, such as by cloning for example, I simply cannot believe it’s irrelevant. Choosing not to mention gender does not shed any light on it, so I resent comparisons with The Left Hand of Darkness, which was a serious thought experiment about what a society would be like if gender only emerged during courtship and reproduction, but was otherwise genderless.

I think one of the most irritating aspects of this book is that the multi-bodied, distributed consciousness of Anaander Mianaai is surprisingly ineffectual at fighting a rogue AI fragment like Breq, and comes off as a petulant teenager for most of the story. This millennia-old being that has ruled a galactic empire cannot even control an unruly station AI and administrator. Annander’s efforts were quite laughable at times, so I struggled to take them seriously after a while.

The other, perhaps more inexcusable aspect, was the alien Presger. They are apparently more powerful than the Radch in technology, and yet for reasons unclear they have entered into a treaty with the Radch to respect them as “significant intelligences” and not just insects to be toyed with and killed for entertainment. How this treaty was achieved is never explored in detail. Instead, we just get a strange human interpreter for the Presger named Zeiat (the previous interpreter Glick met an unfortunate end in the previous book). There is a lot of comic weirdness, since Zeiat is human but has been bred by the alien Presger to serve as a go-between.

All of Zeiat’s behaviors and statements are bizarre and nonsensical, which points to how truly alien the Presger are, to the point that any human that can understand them consequently has trouble understanding human society. That is a pretty cool idea, but Ancillary Mercy just teases us and leaves the entire matter unresolved! What will happen between the Presger and the Radch Empire? Is Anaander Mianaai’s internal conflict being caused by secret Presger interference or not? Who knows? Apparently it’s okay to leave this, along with the mystery AI that came from the Ghost Gate, hanging despite this being the “conclusion” to the trilogy. I felt increasingly cheated as the ending approached, knowing that I would not find out anything after all. Does that mean future volumes are in store? It doesn’t matter, since you can count me out.

~Stuart Starosta

Publication date: October 6, 2015. The stunning conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke award-winning Ancillary Justice. For a moment, things seemed to be under control for Breq, the soldier who used to be a warship. Then a search of Athoek Station’s slums turns up someone who shouldn’t exist, and a messenger from the mysterious Presger empire arrives, as does Breq’s enemy, the divided and quite possibly insane Anaander Mianaai – ruler of an empire at war with itself. Breq refuses to flee with her ship and crew, because that would leave the people of Athoek in terrible danger. The odds aren’t good, but that’s never stopped her before.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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9 comments

  1. clearly I can’t keep pushing this off for much longer. It’ll be nice to start a series that has an end to it . . .

  2. Great review. I can’t wait for more stories from Leckie set in Breq’s world. “Mercy” wrapped the story up very elegantly (quite a feat!) while also being a stronger book than the middle volume and leaving plenty of hooks for more in this universe.

    It also reminded me of how much I used to enjoy space opera. So it instigated a search for new authors in the field which is proving very enjoyable.

    Incidentally, a story set in this world is available (free) on line at Strange Horizons.

  3. I’m with Bill. Now that it’s finished, I want to read the entire trilogy straight through. I had already purchased the first two based on your reviews.

  4. Just got this in audio format. Excited!

  5. Kevin Wei /

    Hmmm…I rather liked this series, but can see Stuart’s point. While it’s true that there are some underdeveloped aspects of this trilogy (and maybe not enough action – or, in Stuart’s words, too much tea), I’m still a fan due to the complexity of this story and the world-building, and the prose. It’s always about the prose.

  6. Marion, I read through your reviews again and I can fully understand all the aspects of the series that you loved. I may even revisit Ancillary Justice someday, which I really enjoyed. In the end, we all bring different expectations, preferences, pet peeves, etc to each book, so reactions will vary. I may not have enjoyed the second and third books as they just weren’t my cup of tea, but that doesn’t reflect on the quality of Leckie’s work.

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