Books: The Good People

The Good PeopleThe Good People by Hannah Kent
Published September 27, 2016
Hannah Kent’s literary debut, Burial Rites, blew me away last year with its atmospheric setting and strong, flawed female protagonist, so I had high hopes for her latest novel. Unfortunately I found The Good People to be something of a disappointment. Although Kent’s new novel is rich in historical detail and provides an excellent window into rural nineteenth century Irish life, I never fully connected with her characters and thought the plot lagged.

Set in County Kerry, Ireland in 1825, the story follows the efforts of three women in a superstitious community to heal one’s ill grandson. Recently widowed Nora, and her hired girl Mary, are informed by Nance, an elderly recluse who is believed to have knowledge of healing gifted by the fairies, that the boy is a changeling child, and together they attempt to restore the true Michael and banish the fairy child through folklore and rituals.

The Good People is impeccably researched historical fiction. Even before I read the acknowledgements it was obvious that Kent had thoroughly researched Irish history, culture, and folklore. The result is a richly detailed world where the characters, settings, and customs feel authentic. As someone who likes my historical fiction heavy on the history, this really appealed to me. I love that I could practically smell the turf fires burning, and feel the cold of the river in winter. If I had to sum Hannah Kent’s writing up in a word it would be atmospheric, and she delivers here again, evoking a mood that is tense with superstition and suspicion.

I also love that Kent’s subject matter is once again the every woman. Much of historical fiction tends to focus on nobility and the upper class, so stories written about the rural laborer and working classes are a welcome divergence, and an important one.

One of my issues with the novel is that there was no character I truly connected with. I certainly sympathized with the plight of characters in The Good People, but none of them grabbed me in the same way that characters in Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, did. Women like Nance, Mary, and Nora all feel authentic and three-dimensional, but I can’t say that I grew attached to them, which prevented the book from tugging at my heart strings in the way that it should have.

My biggest complaint is that The Good People just doesn’t have enough of a story to tell. Despite being under 400 pages, it feels long. Very little in the way of plot happens throughout and the emphasis on folklore and superstitious healing is initially interesting, but grows dull after a few hundred pages of focus. Honestly, I thought The Good People would fare better as a (long-ish) short story or a novella, instead of the full-length novel that Kent has stretched the thin story into.

Even though I found The Good People a bit of a let down and would have preferred it in novella form, I’m still enough of a fan of Hannah Kent’s well-researched style and atmospheric writing that I’ll be picking up future works of hers, and for those who haven’t yet read Burial Rites, I highly recommend it to fans of atmospheric, character-driven historical fiction.


Books: One Dark Throne

29923707One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake
Published September 19, 2017
Those who adored Three Dark Crowns will likely enjoy this quick-paced sequel that furthers the stories of three sister Queens pursuing a single island throne. But for those less enthused by the first book in the series, One Dark Throne offers more of the same. This includes, but is not limited to, an interesting but underdeveloped setting, continued emphasis on romance to the detriment of all other relationships in the book, and a very young and not particularly sophisticated style of writing.

I wanted to like both Three Dark Crowns and One Dark Throne so much more than I ultimately did. Some of this is undoubtedly dissidence with what I was hoping for and what I got. The idea behind the books, of an island that chooses its ruler from a set of triplet queens, each with a gift (naturalist, poisoner, or elemental), has so much potential. There’s an opportunity here for a fascinating examination of feminism, of powerful women being used by their elders and turned against one another and forced to kill. In Mirabella there is the promise of familial affection and sisters who decide not to play the roles that have been set out for them, but sadly One Dark Throne delivers on only a fraction of this potential because the relationships between women, for the most part, play second fiddle to romantic attraction.

Some of this is to be expected – it is YA after all and the main characters are teenagers, but there is SO MUCH ROMANCE in these books. Blake spends far more time on each queen’s feelings towards her various suitors than she does on how these sister rivals feel about each other. It’s especially disappointing because the group of male suitors are virtually interchangeable, to the point where I would have a difficult time coming up with adjectives to describe each of them!

This is going to sound harsh, but one issue I have with this series is that I don’t think it’s well-written. With their emphasis on romance and lack of worldbuilding, Three Dark Crowns and One Dark Throne definitely read on the young side of YA. Although set in a fantasy-esque world that draws inspiration from fairy tales and the past, Blake seems to have decided to convey this by having the two sisters raised in proper settings, Mirabella and Katherine, speak without using contractions. I suspect it’s supposed to sound formal and historical, but since the rest of the dialogue is very contemporary, I just found the lack of contractions made the characters sound stiff and unnatural. If the goal is to set Arsinoe, the wilder tomboy sister, apart from the other queens, it could be accomplished in a more effective manner, for example, by having her speak using invented slang words.

There’s also a lack of skill shown through plot twists, such as (SPOILER) Jules’ legion gift, that read like they were not planned from the start of the series, but invented for this book. I understand that the series was originally intended to be a duology and has since been expanded to a planned trilogy, which probably accounts for the awfully convenient plot turns.

I also found the sparse worldbuilding disappointing. I could excuse a lack of information about the setting and culture of Fennbirn and the Mainland in Three Dark Crowns, but I expected the second book in the series to provide a better sense of how the Island differs from the Mainland, how it came to have this unusual method of governing, and why it is split into these different factions/gifts. Instead I don’t feel like any of my questions were answered to my satisfaction. Without spoiling too much, it looks like there may be some more information that will expand the world in book three, but after nearly 800 pages do I care enough to continue reading in some vague hopes of learning more? I don’t think I do.

Despite the negative review, I want to emphasis that I didn’t hate this. One Dark Throne is still a fun, quick read, it just doesn’t build towards answers or leave me wanting more. There may be more interesting things ahead for the characters in book three, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough story left to carry two more novels when Three Dark Crowns and One Dark Throne have relied so heavily on “filler” scenes.

Books: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

33253215The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Published August 22, 2017
I went into The Heart’s Invisible Furies entirely blind. I knew it was set in Ireland, I knew by virtue of Rachel recommending it to me that it was probably devastating, and I knew that she had loved it. Rachel’s words carry so much weight for me that I put it on hold at the library without knowing another thing. From the very first page I was hooked! Like A Little Life, it’s a brick-sized book that never feels long. I finished all 580 pages of the hardcover in a matter of days because I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. The pace is swift and never drags, the characters are funny, flawed, and engaging, and the tragedy is tempered with a wicked sense of humour that had me literally laughing out loud. I absolutely loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies and know that come December it will be near the top of my list of Best Books Read in 2017.

Told from the first-person perspective of a man looking back on his life, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sweeping saga about growing up in twentieth century Ireland as a gay man. The story begins when Cyril’s mother, Catherine Goggin, is denounced by the priest in front of her entire town for becoming pregnant at 16. Forced to leave home, she takes the bus to Dublin, buys a ring in a pawn store, and passes herself off as a war widow to gain employment. Realizing she can’t raise the baby alone, Catherine gives Cyril to a wealthy but eccentric couple who provide for his physical comforts, but constantly remind him growing up that he is not a real Avery. This is a lot funnier than it sounds! Cyril’s life gains focus when he forms a friendship with the glamorous Julian, but as they grow up, Cyril realizes that he feels something more than friendship for Julian.

The first-person narration by Cyril is hilarious, poignant, and even tragic as it deals with the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic Church, homosexuality in twentieth century Ireland (Cyril is told by a doctor that his romantic and sexual feelings for men don’t mean he’s gay because “there are no homosexuals in Ireland”), adoption, AIDS, and other heavy topics.

As a Canadian I have a very love-hate (okay, I admit it – mostly hate) relationship with our national style of literature, Can Lit. Stylistically it tends to be slower-paced, and consist of character-driven works set in rural areas where the landscape can mirror the emotions and emptiness of the main character. I’m exaggerating, but honestly not by much. Until I picked up The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I hadn’t given much thought to the national literature of other countries.

From the opening of the book I had flashbacks, not to the content, but to the tone of Angela’s Ashes, a book I read probably fifteen years ago. Both use black humor as a coping mechanism for tragedy, both involve criticism of the Catholic Church, and although The Heart’s Invisible Furies is fiction, it’s told from the perspective of the central character, Cyril, looking back on his life in a way that feels a little like a memoir, with a tone that is blunt, funny, and sad all at once. If this is characteristic of Irish Lit as a whole, I’ll definitely be looking for more recommendations! I can see how this particular sense of humour may not translate for all readers, but it was right up my alley.

One of the things I loved most about this book was its characters. Boyne doesn’t shy away from making his characters flawed, and not just superficially. Cyril makes massive errors in judgment, some of which quite literally change the lives of everyone around him, and yet we still root for him, because he does so without cruelty of intent. I like to think that I would make different decisions in his place, but I can see why Cyril makes the decisions he does, that he errs from a place of searching for acceptance in a country and culture that doesn’t accept him for who he is.

Although male characters figure prominently, Boyne writes some exceedingly capable women. Catherine Goggins, Cyril’s self-reliant, yet kind birth mother who he unknowingly meets in different contexts throughout the novel is exceptionally determined. Another favourite character is Alice, Julian’s academically inclined and witty sister.

My one criticism is that the book relies heavily on coincidence, or on fate, however you choose to view it. Even in a smaller city like Dublin, it stretches belief that Catherine Goggins would, unknowingly, run into Cyril time and time again, so fair warning that you will have to suspend your disbelief early in order to let The Heart’s Invisible Furies really work its magic.

With that one caveat though, I wholeheartedly loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and will definitely be reading more by John Boyne in the future.

Books: The Stone Sky

31817749The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
Published August 15, 2017
With the last book in any trilogy, there is a sense of trepidation as I turn the pages. Will the novel live up to my high expectations? Will it provide answers for all of the questions asked in previous volumes? And, most importantly, will the final pages of the book deliver a satisfying conclusion to the series? With Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the answer is yes, yes, and yes! Overall the book may be more of a 4.5 stars for me, but I have to throw in that extra half star for closing out this epic trilogy in such a powerful way.

The Stone Sky is set, like its predecessors, in the Stillness, a single supercontinent where Earthquakes occur frequently and the aftermath every few centuries results in a “Fifth Season”. Seasons are sporadic climate events where the sky turns ashy, earthquakes become frequent, and even the local flora and fauna become hostile. This latest and last apocalyptic event, the Yumenes Rifting, will cause the loss of all life, unless a powerful orogene – someone born with the ability to manipulate thermodynamics – can harness the power of the obelisks to return the wayward moon to its orbit and put an end to the Seasons once and for all.

Continuing the story from the Hugo Award-winning Obelisk Gate, – and I’d be shocked if The Stone Sky isn’t at least nominated next year as well – The Stone Sky presents us with two candidates. Essun, a middle-aged woman and skilled orogene, and her pre-teen daughter Nassun. Both orogenes, they have each lived through horror, watched the people they love turn against them, and have even killed. While Nassun has experienced only heartbreak and fear at the hands of humans, Essun has finally found belonging in a community of orogenes and “stills” who work together to survive. This fundamental difference is what separates mother and daughter.

The Stone Sky is masterfully written, with Hoa, the Stone Eater, weaving the viewpoints of both orogenes together with his narration that explains his world, the origin of the Obelisks, and how and why the moon was lost. The prose and worldbuilding is as wonderful as before, with Jemisin also providing new settings beyond the Stillness. Interestingly enough, this is the most magical book of the series, providing more fantasy aspects than the series had shown previously, but all are so well set out that they make perfect sense and require little in the way of suspension of disbelief.

I also got the sense, while reading it, that this is an important story. The protagonists are both women-of-colour, marginalized people in a world that oppresses and rejects them. Both characters are powerful and have agency over the choices they make, but they are also allowed to be vulnerable and to seek help without ever being viewed as weaker for having done so. With another character, Jemisin provides meaningful commentary on the enslavement of a race, and the process of de-humanizing them in order to further another civilization’s greed for more, more, more.

The characters continue to be at the forefront of Jemisin’s story. Essun in particular has such a fantastic arc over the course of the series, going from a cautious woman trying to pass for a “still” and protect her family, to a bitter and independent woman who trusts no one, to finally finding acceptance and a sort of ‘found family’ among the residents of Castrima. Nassun’s journey is more fraught and heartbreaking, but no less engaging. The secondary characters, from a transgendered character, the brilliant, but scattered Tonkee, to mysterious Hoa, and to patient Lerna, are all people I cared about and rooted for.

I also love that although the series is not without romantic and sexual relationships, it’s platonic and familial relationships that form the core of the story. All of the relationships are so well-written and each has a unique dynamic.

The Stone Sky is an incredible achievement, a moving and epic final part to a trilogy that should be read by every single fan of fantasy fiction, and probably by many others who don’t consider themselves fans of the genre.


Books: All the Birds, Singing

18142324All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Published April 15, 2014
All the Birds, Singing is not a bad book, it’s just emphatically not my cup of tea. While I appreciated the author’s atmospheric setting and the way she plays with gender roles, I was ultimately put off by the graphic depictions of animal deaths, and found the ending confusing and unsatisfying.

The novel centers around Jake Whyte, a sheep farmer who lives in self-imposed isolation on a rugged British island with only a flock of sheep and a collie named “Dog” for company. When someone, or something, begins to pick off her sheep, Jake’s search for the culprit brings her into contact with her neighbours, and forces her to confront the mysterious past she’s been running from. Jake’s past is slowly revealed in flashback chapters that occur in reverse chronological order to answer questions such as why is Jake estranged from her family? And how did she come to have the scars on her back?

Wyld is at her most effective in creating an atmospheric setting, that highlights the vague sense of unease underlying the book. The craggy coast feels appropriately desolate, and reflects Jake’s state of being. I also really liked the dynamic between Jake and the stranger who becomes a part of her life, Lloyd. She gives him a place to stay and he, in turn, provides help with tasks on the farm. The development of their friendship feels patient and organic, as it has to be when Jake has been living a self-sufficient existence and carries baggage from her past.

The gender dynamics at play in the novel are also really interesting. All the Birds, Singing was this month’s choice for the book club I’m in. Interestingly enough it reminded me of our last read, American War, in that they both play with gender roles. Jake has a more masculine build, and goes by a typically male name. She works manual labor jobs, including shearing sheep. When Lloyd arrives in her life, he tidies the farmhouse and sets a welcoming blaze in the fireplace while she tends to the sheep.

Equal parts literary fiction and thriller, All the Birds, Singing is definitely outside my genre comfort zone. Here’s the thing: I don’t read a lot of literary fiction to begin with, but when I love a work of literary fiction, it usually has flowing, moving prose, and delves deeply into the minds of its characters. All the Birds, Singing doesn’t tick either box. Wyld tries to provide insight into Jake’s mind, and even writes using a first-person perspective, but because Jake is so closed off and the narrative keeps her at arm’s length from the reader in order to slowly reveal her past, I don’t think it really succeeds. Wyld also writes with shorter, more concise and contemporary prose than I typically prefer from a work of literary fiction.

I wasn’t expecting All The Birds, Singing to be so blunt in its depictions of both sex and animal slaughter. The off-putting and not at all romanticized descriptions of sex fit the story Wyld’s telling, but I found the descriptions of animal death to be unnecessarily brutal.

Without spoiling anything, this is the sort of book where I read the last page (without knowing it was the last page since there were a few left for acknowledgements), flipped to the next page and thought, ‘oh, that was it.’ It ends very abruptly and without a lot of answers, which I found deeply unsatisfying.

Just because the book doesn’t fit my personal preferences doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to other readers though. All the Birds, Singing appears to be a divisive work, and I suspect others will get more out of it than I did.

Books: American War

32283423American War by Omar El Akkad
Published April 4, 2017
Although it probably isn’t something I would have picked up at all had my book club not been reading it, I had high hopes for Omar El Akkad’s American War nonetheless. The premise, of a Second American Civil War over oil in a near future ravaged by rising sea levels, is interesting, particularly in the current U.S. political climate. Unfortunately, while the details of this imagined future are portrayed convincingly by the author, the broader world-building is so half-formed that the gaps in logic erode any credibility. The result is a book that reads less like a tragedy about hate, division, and the impact of war on the average citizen, and more like an interesting, but not at all believable, fantasy.

After her father is killed in an act of terrorism and she is displaced from her home by the nearby fighting, protagonist Sarat comes of age in a refugee camp (“Camp Patience”) where she sees friends and family killed and experiences loss. Her brother is swayed by propaganda to become a child soldier, but Sarat’s intelligence, hulking physique, even as a pre-teen, and her circumstances make her prey for the older and immensely creepy (from the reader’s perspective) Albert Gaines, who grooms her to be a more deadly and specialized weapon. Realizing that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, he plies her with caviar and even literal honey, and feeds Sarat lies designed to make her hate the North.

Sarat’s situation is sympathetic, although the second half of the book (without spoiling too much) veers more into ‘cool motive, still murder’ territory. Obviously the reader hates how sleazy Gaines manipulates a young girl, in effect ruining her life and the lives of so many others, but the pity I felt was almost abstract in nature. I understood Sarat’s actions, and yet I never connected with her enough to make this novel the tragedy it wants to be. Unfortunately Sarat is also El Akkad’s best developed character. None of the secondary characters were more than surface deep. In a book like this, which is ostensibly supposed to show the devastating impact of both war and climate change on the average citizen, a lack of characters to identify with and form a connection to takes away from the message.

My biggest issue with American War is that it’s just such a shallowly constructed world. In the first 20 pages of N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky I got more world-building than there is in the entirety of American War! It’s difficult to put my finger on why that is, but I think the answer lies in the fact that El Akkad is so wrapped up in the details of his world – what the characters eat in Camp Patience, the treatment of prisoners in Sugarloaf Detention Facility, and even the inspiration behind the South’s flag – that he neglects the bigger picture.

Part of the problem is the timeline El Akkad has chosen for his book, which takes place between 2075 and the early twenty-second century. My ability to suspend disbelief is pretty strong. I love science-fiction and fantasy and I have never once questioned when a characters bursts out into song randomly in a special musical episode of a show or in a Broadway production, but I just couldn’t get past how incredibly implausible the entire world order is in this book. My grasp on African history and politics is limited at best, but the idea that in 58 years the various nations of North Africa have put aside their differences, formed a republic known as the Bouazizi Empire, and are (along with China – now that I believe!) the world’s superpower is difficult to wrap my head around, especially since there’s virtually no explanation given for how this has come about. I don’t remember El Akkad mentioning what happened to the present-day economic powerhouses, such as countries in Europe, Asia, or even in nearby Canada, to take them out of the running. In fact, considering the author lived in Canada for more than a decade, and the length of the border, it’s an odd thing to leave out. The lack of detail about the shape of the rest of the world is a particularly egregious oversight because the narrator of the book is a historian!

Although it’s a primary driver in the South’s separation from and subsequent war with the North, there’s also limited background given as to how the South can be the only ones still using fossil fuel. With obvious comparisons being drawn to the events and geographical divisions of the Civil War, and with a biracial protagonist, I also found it incredibly odd that race plays so small a role in American War.

Ultimately American War was a great disappointment to me, and certainly the worst of the few books I read in August. The author’s writing style I generally liked, finding it descriptive without being over-the-top, and the details are rendered with care, but the lack of broader context made it difficult to suspend my disbelief and I didn’t connect with any of the characters.


Books: Our Dark Duet

32075662Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab
Published June 13, 2017
Set roughly six months after the events of This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab returns to the world of Verity, a place where violent acts breed actual monsters, with Our Dark Duet. In order to step up and take on a leadership role in the FTF, an organisation that aims to keeps the city safe from monsters, August Flynn has repressed the humanity he yearns for and embraced his nature as a sunai monster who can steal ‘bad’ souls with a song. But when Kate Harker, a gifted monster hunter now living in nearby Prosperity, is threatened by a new and terrifying monster that can turn its victims against one another, she realizes she can’t outrun her past. Will her return to Verity be enough to fight back the monsters, including one of her own making? And will August let her back in? Our Dark Duet is a bittersweet ending to an interesting duology about humanity, monsters, and the gray area in-between them.

Schwab seems to delight in subverting gender expectations in her work, a choice that I wholeheartedly applaud. As in her Shades of Magic series, the Monsters of Verity duology gives us an impulsive and independent female protagonist (Kate) who feels most at home with a weapon in her hand, and a more brooding and careful male counterpart (August).

Both of the main characters held my focus, and I enjoyed reading about the changes they had undergone since This Savage Song, but I also really missed the interaction between Kate and August, which doesn’t occur until mid-way through Our Dark Duet. Oddly enough, when the same author places Lila Bard and Kell Maresh on separate journeys for a good chunk of A Gathering of Shadows, she pulls it off brilliantly! So why doesn’t it work as well here? I think part of the reason is the supporting cast.

The Shades of Magic series features minor and side characters, both in Red London and on the pirate ship Lila joins the crew of, who were all fully fleshed out and interesting in their own right. To be honest, I found Kate’s crew of allies in Prosperity all a little one-dimensional. August fares better in Verity, with his family and an engaging villain to support his arc, but even still, few of the supporting players match the heights of Rhy, Holland, or Alucard. The exception continues to be August’s sister Isla, who is a delight! Although voiceless, she gets across more with a touch, a glance, or an action than many characters do with the full range of motion and ability to speak. I also really enjoyed the introduction of the genderless, down-to-business, sunai Soro and vicious Malchai Alice.

Admittedly I tend to like characters more when they agonize over their feelings, even when they don’t show this on the outside, than when they shove them down and repress emotions in the course of duty, so it took me a bit to warm up to August this time around. It’s the presence of characters like Isla, who in her quiet and gentle way disapproves of August’s choice to embrace his monster duty, Kate who straight out asks August what he’s playing at, and feline companion Allegro, who abandons August’s company as he reaps souls, who humanize August again. Once the cracks in her armor begin to show and he wonders if he’s doing the right thing, he becomes (at least to me) a much more engaging character.

Victoria Schwab has a gift for maintaining tension throughout her books, and this is no exception. Several subplots are deftly balanced, from August’s struggle with his own nature and role to Kate’s battle of wills with the chaos eater invading her mind. Full disclosure, I didn’t think to re-read before embarking on Our Dark Duet and it definitely made the beginning harder to follow as I tried to remember where This Savage Song left off! Although the first-half is slow going, once the novel kicks into gear in the second half it’s an engaging and fast-paced ride.

Books: Ancillary Mercy

23533039Ancillary 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.