Ancillary Mercy

by Ann Leckie

Cover image

Series: Imperial Radch #3
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: October 2015
ISBN: 0-316-24668-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 330

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This is the third book of the series that starts with Ancillary Justice. Please don't read it out of order. The three books form a rare thing in SF: a trilogy with a clear start and a clear ending. They're ideally read fairly close together so that you can remember the people involved.

By the end of Ancillary Sword, Leckie had apparently resolved most of the plot in the Athoek system, although the Ghost Gate and broader imperial turmoil still lurked. I was expecting this novel to be another change of scene, and probably a broadening of the scope into the more sweeping events set off by earlier books.

That's not what Ancillary Mercy is at all. Leckie caught me by surprise early, and the book kept not going in the direction I was expecting. And the result is brilliant.

It's obviously difficult to talk about this in detail, since there's no way I'm going to spoil this or any of the previous books. This is some of the best SF I've ever read, and I want anyone who's not read the series yet to have the full experience. What I will say is that there was a lot of character growth left, including in some places that I thought would remain setting-mandated blind spots. Leckie tackles some very tricky themes, ones that are hard to do well because of how thoroughly the ground has already been explored, and still manages to find an original take and an even more original tone. And remains true to Breq's characterization throughout, including one critical scene that's masterful in its heart-breaking understatedness.

Breq's flat affect is both very difficult and incredibly rewarding as a first-person protagonist. If I had to call out one thing that makes this series so special to me, it's the way that Leckie puts the reader in the middle of a restrained and very careful culture, centers the book on a character with a very unusual relationship to emotion, nearly completely avoids outward displays of feeling, treats emotions primarily as data to be weighed with other information, and yet provides just the right amount of subtle clues and external reflection to show just how central emotion is to everything that happens. This is an incredibly difficult balancing act, much harder than an openly emotional book (let alone the tough-guy cliches that military SF is normally full of), and it makes the occasional pay-offs so rewarding. I think some people might find Ancillary Mercy too understated, but I thought it was note-perfect throughout. And the ending was spectacular.

For those who are less enamored of Breq and more interested in the plot, don't worry: we do get some resolution to most of the loose threads. There's clearly potential in this universe for more stories (and apparently more books coming!), but this trilogy comes to a definite end. If I had to quibble, I'd say that a few bits of the plot are too convenient: the resolution would have been impossible without one very critical mistake at the start of the second book, and there's at least one perfectly-timed accident. But Leckie's most critical plot resolution tool was properly hung on the wall in the last book and used perfectly. It's hard to manage a satisfying resolution to a twisty political conflict between very sharp antagonists; for me, at least, Leckie pulls it off.

Looking back on the whole series, I find it striking how much more satisfying and believable Leckie's military culture is for her setting than those I normally read. I think we're too often given far-future military stories that are full of impulsive drama, high emotion, and physical feats. But in a world of starships and space stations, advanced computers, careful and systematized roles, and precise engineering, that's not realistic. While there is some physical violence required, problems in that world are more likely to look like operational computer problems than gladiatorial problems. That means the required tools are careful and fast analytical skills, quick iterative decision-making, and precise execution, not physical toughness and grit.

In that world, adrenaline is at best useless and often your enemy. Leckie's world of tea sets and emotional control is partly driven by other world-building factors, but, particularly in this book, I was struck by how well-adapted it is to a military where calm decisions and efficient follow-through are far more important than adrenaline-driven courage. The emotion is absolutely there, but the catharsis doesn't come through bloody battles or feats of physicality. Again, so tricky to pull off, since it plays against the expectations we bring as readers to a war story, but I found it so much more satisfying when written well.

I also love that this series is not about saving the world, at least in any direct sense. It is about justice, and ethics, and about standing up for what's right, but it's just as much about identity, about how to choose and define one's ethics, and how to make the most of the small number of decisions one gets to make. Everyone in this world is operating under sharp constraints: culture, ability, available alliances, physical limitations, and particularly the role into which they were cast. Huge things happen in this series, but not from the dramatic, order-overturning action of Chosen Ones. Rather, change is created by individuals who find small points of leverage and definition, and who make quiet, critical decisions to become better people than they were.

I adore this series, and particularly this conclusion, beyond all rational measure. I'm sure that won't be universal, just as other readers weren't as enamored as I was of the direction Leckie went in Ancillary Sword. But this was a series conclusion that I was not expecting at all, that kept surprising me right up to the climax, and was exactly the conclusion that I wanted. If you liked the previous books, and particularly if you liked Ancillary Sword but thought Breq was a bit too much in control of the plot and a bit too able to make things go her way, I think you'll love Ancillary Mercy.

This is simply the best SF series I've read in a long time.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-15

Last modified and spun 2015-10-16