A Shining Light for Space Opera: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie swept the board of awards with her debut, Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Sword, its sequel, received award nominations in its own right. Now Ancillary Mercy forms the closing volume of the trilogy, and the question is—can Leckie stick the dismount?

I was terrified the answer would be No. It’s no particular secret that Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword are books very close to my heart: they’re almost unique in how they both gave me the story I didn’t know I wanted, but when I read it turned out to sit perfectly up against my soul. (That sounds overwrought—and yet.) There’s no such thing as a perfect book, but for me? These come pretty damn close. They’re given me great joy and immense solace over the last two years, and I’m not ashamed to confess to being downright petrified that Ancillary Mercy might change how I felt about them.

Spoiler: it didn’t.

Spoiler: Leckie stuck the dismount.

Spoiler: OH SWEET HEAVEN THIS BOOK LET ME HUG IT LET ME KEEP IT LET ME ADORE IT FOREVER.

Ahem.

It’s not possible for me to write anything that pretends to a distanced reaction. Ancillary Mercy is just too much what I wanted it to be. I have no critical perspective. I may never attain the kind of distance required for proper critical perspective: even now I have to sit on the urge to turn every statement I make about it into CAPSLOCK WITH EXCLAMATION MARKS! It’s a little embarrassing. It feels like revealing too much of my squishy inward parts.

If you’ve read Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, you already know whether or not you want to read Ancillary Mercy, I suspect. (If you haven’t, do try them. I hope they make you as happy as they have made me.) But if you’re having a hard time making up your mind…

Ancillary Mercy opens where Ancillary Sword left off, with Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai—the last remaining fragment of the ship-AI Justice of Toren—still recovering from the injuries sustained at Sword‘s climax. But there is very little time for her complete her recovery, or to shore up Athoek system’s precarious stability. Anaander Mianaai, the multi-bodied ruler of the Radch, is at war with herself, and the war might be coming to Athoek. One part of Anaander Mianaai is very angry with Breq. Breq, on the other hand, sees little difference between the parts of Anaander Mianaai, and would thwart even the part that gave her the rank of Fleet Captain, if she could.

To complicate matters further, even before the warships of Anaander Mianaai arrive in Athoek system, Breq faces political opposition on Athoek Station, the presence of an ancillary from a ship that was old when the Radch was young, and has no love for Radchaai in general and Anaander Mianaai in specific, and the arrival of a translator from the alien Presger—who used to dismantle human ships, and humans, for fun. This last is especially worrisome, since the last Presger translator to visit Athoek ended up semi-accidentally shot. No one, Breq included, is entirely sure how the Presger will react.

But this is only tangentially the heart of Ancillary Mercy. The real core of this novel, what gives it its strength, lies in the relationships between the characters, and the willingness Leckie has to show us the… the virtues of her characters’ flaws, is the only way I can put it. Breq screws up, but the ways in which she screws up are uniquely hers. Her occasional obliviousness doesn’t take away from her near-painful resolution to do as much of the right thing as she can. (Although resolution isn’t quite the right word. It’s not something Breq consciously dwells on as much as it’s what she is: it seems Justice of Toren may have been well-named.) Seivarden screws up, but her ego and her problems with her addiction don’t take away from her loyalty and her determination. Tisarwat—depressed, anxious, medicated, manipulative—still volunteers for a very dangerous mission with every apparent expectation of carrying it off. (As someone who relies on medication to regulate my brain chemistry myself, this straightforward portrayal of mental issues as just one more thing that people deal with is incredibly gratifying.)

As for the AIs—at least the ones whose point of view we don’t see, like Mercy of Kalr, Sphene, Athoek Station—Leckie manages to make them alien and relatable at once, while Presger Translator Zeiat is perhaps the most alien character I’ve encountered in a long while.

This is generous book, and a hopeful one. It doesn’t handwave away the problems of imperialism and colonisation, but neither does it close down the possibility for the future to be better than the past. The Imperial Radch trilogy, as a whole, strikes me as a work with a central thematic interest in what you do with what’s done to you—among other things. Identity. Volition. Constraint. Right action.

And it’s a bloody fun ride. It has a sense of humour that made me laugh out loud more than once. It’s good. It’s more than good, it’s brilliant: a shining light in the space opera firmament. I praise it excessively, because books that’re this good, that satisfy me this much? They’re a rare and wonderful experience.

What a book. What a trilogy. I cried when I finished reading Ancillary Mercy, because it left me too full of emotions to hold them all in.

And now it’s done.

Ancillary Mercy is available now from Orbit.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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