An Explosive Space Opera: Seven Mercies by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May

Seven Mercies, the second novel-length collaboration between Elizabeth May and Laura Lam, is the conclusion to the space opera duology that began with 2020’s Seven Devils. A small and ragged band of rebels stand against the might of a murderous empire and the AI that’s capable of controlling the minds of its citizens. The results are explosive.

Each of the viewpoint characters are deeply affected in their own way. And there are a lot of viewpoint characters: Eris, former heir to the empire, haunted by the atrocities she committed in its service and by her rivalry with the new emperor, her brother; Nyx, a former supersoldier, now dying of a terrible disease and forced to learn to rely on other things than her physical abilities; Kyla, the rebellion’s commander, a former imperial soldier whose brother has been recaptured and subjected to mind control; Clo, a mechanic who’s been with the rebellion for many years; Rhea, Clo’s lover, who was genetically engineered to have psychic gifts and who escaped sexual slavery in the heart of the imperial court; Ariadne, a teenager who was bred to be the engineer whose hands and eyes maintain the AI whose influence pervades all of imperial society but who wanted more—love, a family, freedom—and Cato, a pilot with the memories and skills of a doctor, who still have the whispers of the AI in the back of his brain.

I enjoyed Seven Devils, but I also found it unsatisfying. Seven Mercies is enjoyable and unsatisfying in a like fashion, although it is well-paced, entertaining, and appropriately explosive for a space opera clearly operating in the Star Wars tradition. Reflection leads me to realise that one of the things I enjoy most in science fiction and fantasy, especially in those works with a wide (epic? epic) scale, is the detail of the setting, the systems that make up the world, the sense of history and the overlapping layers of accretion and change and loss that make distinct cultures out of peoples who began in the same place. Give me a minor treatise on agriculture in snatches between planning a rescue, a digression on sewage treatment, asides on ecology or the different treatment of the dead, a diversity of myths and rituals and approaches to the world: characters with hobbies and interests that imply more than is ever shown on the page. In the absence of that layered—and to many people, distracting and unnecessary—depth of detail, I find myself less engrossed, less compelled, less satisfied.

In Seven Mercies, as in Seven Devils, Lam and May are more interested in emotion and character than in systems. The setting, outside its broadest strokes, is more of a backdrop for the sentiment than anything else. There’s not a lot of space for all seven viewpoint characters to have very well-developed arcs, but three have strongly developed ones: Rhea must face going undercover among people that could very well welcome her home for her psychic gifts, and choose what kind of home, which kinds of freedoms, she values most; Ariadne faces what her choices as an engineer of the mind-controlling AI have done, and acknowledge her future; and Eris must face her brother, whose rivalry and desire for power has had a hand in shaping her entire life, and against whom—in opposition to whom—she defines herself.

Thematically, Seven Mercies feels like it’s not having any particularly interesting arguments. Its central concern is freedom versus a very literal self-erasure—the subsumation of the self into, essentially, a hive-mind controlled by an AI or into a psychic link with a wider group identity—but it doesn’t delve into the nature of freedom or restraint. Eris and Ariadne are the only characters who—despite being groomed from birth to their roles—really had much option to make choices in their service to the empire. (No wonder they’re my favourites.) Seven Mercies, like Seven Devils, is less interested in questions of complicity and identity, of ethical choices in a broken world, than it is in action and explosions.

May and Lam are very good at action and explosions. Action and explosions are delightful. I enjoy reading about them. Still, there’s a gap between what I want in a space opera and what Seven Mercies gave me, from its breakneck opening to its explosive climax and every confrontation in between. It’s not Seven Mercies’ fault that what it offers and what I want most from a novel are different things: it is in many respects compelling, and it’s definitely a fun and entertaining romp.

Seven Mercies is available from DAW.

Liz Bourke used to be cranky. Now they’re just tired. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Their first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at Patreon or Twitter.

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