Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Published October 6, 2015
The final volume in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy left me conflicted, and it took reading a selection of other reviews on goodreads to put my finger on why that was. It’s not that Ancillary Mercy is a bad book – it isn’t, I genuinely enjoyed the novel and gave it a solid 4 stars – it’s just not what I expected from the last book in a series. Initially I thought Breq and her crew’s part in things wrapped up too conveniently and easily, while the epic scale of the conflict promised in the first novel is largely left alone. After some reflection though, I think the ending fits, even though it’s not the one I expected. Ultimately the Imperial Radch trilogy isn’t a Lord of the Rings-esque epic about the battle between good and evil or a dystopia that seeks to overhaul an entire world order, it’s about one individual AI’s part in it all and her journey to becoming a person.
Let me backtrack a little. The first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, set up this galactic empire ruled by the Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch. Possessing multiple bodies, which share a single consciousness, Anaander Mianaii can be in many places at once, allowing her to govern the entirety of the sprawling Radch Empire. Enter Breq, the last remaining fragment of the Radch starship Justice of Toren’s consciousness. She is the only surviving ancillary (AI-controlled corpse soldier) after the ship’s destruction and has vowed revenge on The Lord of the Radch. Ancillary Justice is a fast-paced adventure and Leckie throws the reader in headfirst with limited time to adjust to a world unique from our own (among other things, the default pronouns are female gendered).
After establishing this vast empire and a grudge spanning decades, Leckie’s second book, Ancillary Sword, did the exact opposite of what I expected. Instead of escalating the conflict and placing Breq, now Fleet Captain and with allies in her quest for revenge, squarely in the center of it, Leckie takes a deliberate step backwards, narrowing the focus to a single world. It’s a book about injustice in a much smaller arena, and about characters and relationships. The choice gives Leckie’s plot a change to breathe, and allows her characters to grow and develop.
As much as I loved Ancillary Sword‘s narrower focus, I thought the epic scope of the trilogy would continue with Ancillary Mercy. I really expected to be thrust back into the galactic conflict set up in the first book of the series. Instead, the final part of the trilogy remains focused on a single world, a single part of space, and a defined set of largely already existing characters. It was enough to make me wonder if Leckie had changed her vision of what she wanted for the series halfway through! After some reflection though, I believe Ancillary Mercy‘s strength lies in how well it develops all of its characters and in how it finds the humanity in non-human characters.
Certainly the debate about the ethics of artificial intelligence is not new. Whether AI appears in the form of ships, androids, or something else entirely, science-fiction has long pondered whether AI’s can ever be human, and discussed the morality of whether artificially intelligent beings are property or should have autonomy. The Imperial Radch trilogy, with its AI-formerly the starship Justice of Toren-protagonist is a masterclass in introducing this theme organically and in a subtle way. From the first book, the ties that a Ship can feel to its crew and its ability to have Favourites is underestimated by humans. By Ancillary Mercy there are conversations where Breq and Sphene, another fragment of consciousness from a starship, discuss how they are addressed by the members of their crew and if it would bother them to be referred to as ‘it’. There is a disabled Breq reflecting as she receives medical attention that if she were still just an ancillary, she would have been cast aside. And there is Breq becoming more human, learning to rely less on her ancillary implants and Ship to tell her what the crew is feeling at any given moment.
These instances of character development are not limited to the book’s AI characters. There are quiet moments like Lieutenant Tisarwat’s struggle to shape an identity for herself between the powerful Lord of the Radch who has been inside her head and the flighty young lieutenant she once was, when she discusses changing her eye-colour to something more conventional. Then there’s Seivarden, whose social interactions are shaped by her past addiction and her former aristocratic social status. She apologizes at first to her lover without understanding what she said that caused such offense, and then realizes that even if she can’t understand why something was so offensive, the point is that she hurt someone she cared about and that should have been enough to cause a change in behaviour.
And yes, there’s some comic relief in the form of Translator Zeiat, a Presger visitor who takes great joy in drinking fish sauce by the bowl, but serves a purpose in the end.
Ancillary Mercy in this way fits into the category of some of my favourite sci-fi, that which is driven by characters and their self-development and their interactions with one another, as much as it is by plot and machinations (see Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga for another great example of this type of science-fiction).
If you go into this book expecting a larger resolution to the galactic conflicts, you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Ancillary Mercy ignores many of these larger issues and problems with the world introduced at the beginning of the series, but if you’ve come to love Breq and her crew as characters and want their story, you won’t be disappointed. Ultimately it’s an ending that takes time to settle in the mind, but once I thought about it, I appreciated Ancillary Mercy all the more. Like life, things are left unfinished and there is a sense that the world will carry on, and that the characters will continue to develop and grow. Perhaps in a two steps forward, one step back kind of way, but still in the right direction.