(and the rest of the Imperial Radch trilogy)
Published Oct 6 2015
The conclusion of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. As the final book in the trilogy, I doubt it stands alone. Hard to tell since I’ve read all three, but I just cannot imagine being able to just jump into the story at this point. All the history and backstory of the main character Breq and the universe of the Radch took a pretty large chunk of the first book to set up, and is pretty important to understanding anything that is going on in Mercy. Mercy follows on pretty much straight after Ancillary Sword, and without understanding the politics or characters introduced in the previous book, I’m not sure Ancillary Mercy will make much sense.
This isn’t a bad thing per se. Leckie has created a very expansive, lived in universe with well thought out histories and customs. The Radch universe feels beautifully real and is certainly not your standard space opera. It’s quite reasonable that a quick catch up at the start of each book would be insufficient for bringing a new reader up to speed. However, it’s inability to stand alone is something I’ll take into consideration when comparing it to the other Hugo nominees. For this review, I’ll also be reviewing the rest of the series, since there are many things to talk about that are common across all three books.
The first thing to point out is that the Radchaai don’t really care about gender, and so only have one set of pronouns; represented here as using feminine pronouns for everyone. This combined with minimal physical description of characters mean that you never learn the gender of most characters; Which surprisingly, is not as confusing as it sounds. I found it interesting seeing what gender I ended up seeing various characters as, and interestingly, I saw many as androgynous. I’ve heard people say using only feminine pronouns is gimmicky, but I disagree. It was interesting and really made me think about how I view gender and sexuality. I would love to compare thoughts on the characters with other people. Though I will admit, the lack of description and the really foreign names can make it hard to keep track of some of the minor characters. Especially when a lot are introduced at once.
The other thing that really differentiates this series from well, pretty much everything else is the main character Breq; formerly known as Justice of Toren. Justice of Toren was a massive spaceship in the Radch military, used to go conquering other worlds. Connected to the ship were hundreds of ancillaries – aka corpse soldiers – humans who have had their minds erased and are hooked up to the ship’s AI. Justice of Toren can see with and control all these human bodies at once, though I should stop praising that aspect of the story now since it’s more to do with the first book in the series.
The first two books tell how through the treachery of Anaander Mianaai – the ruler of the Radch Empire, who is a single consciousness spread across thousands of cloned bodies – Justice of Toren became a single ancillary named Breq. Breq then spent 19 years on a revenge mission which has led her to the planet Athoek as a Fleet Captain with one ship at her disposal. Throughout it all, we are reminded that Breq isn’t really human, though she does value some of the same things we do. Throughout the series, the narration conveys Breq’s nature as an AI with a somewhat detached narrative voice. In Ancillary Mercy, Breq seems to really come to terms with her own nature and the relationships between her and the humans and AIs around her really shine.
I found the worldbuilding even better than the characterisation. There are no planets of hats here. Every world we visit has a range of cultures and peoples that feel very real. The religions, the languages, the traditions of this universe are portrayed very well, but without many big info dumps. We see what we need to see from this very diverse far future, and it is glorious.
So, between the complex range of cultures, lack of masculine pronouns, and a viewpoint characters that is able to see many things and take many actions at once, you may be imagining this series as a convoluted mess of wild ideas. But it’s not. Leckie is an amazingly talented writer, and has describes this strange space empire and this spaceship that can now pass as human clearly. The mind twisting concepts are packaged into a story that is fun, hard to put down, and very well written. The start of Ancillary Justice can be a bit confusing at first… but I’m really supposed to be talking about Ancillary Mercy, and if you’ve made it to that book, you should have no trouble following the story.
Okay, time to get to the awesome things in Ancillary Mercy that aren’t in the other two books. First two that come to mind are Station and Translator Zeiat. The AI of Athoek Station was in Ancillary Sword, but here it really begins to shine, as Breq begins to influence its decisions. The role Station plays in the climax is gold. As for Translator Zeiat… okay, some more background. There is an alien race called the Presgar that are so alien, we cannot understand them. So that they can deal with us, the Presgar have created these translators to bridge the gap. The translators seem human, but every action Zeiat does reminds us that she is not human. Some of Zeiat’s behaviour is quite unnerving, but mostly, it’s hilarious. Or both at the same time. Through the sheer craziness of Zeiat, and her attempts to understand aspects of humanity, we get some sense of just how incomprehensible the Presgar are.
Being a bit more general, Ancillary Mercy follows straight on from Ancillary Sword, and wraps up the series nicely. We have the long awaited encounter at the end with Big Bad Anaander Mianaai. In some ways, it can be seen as an anti-climax. The confrontation set up in Ancillary Justice plays out across the galaxy, and Breq is just on Athoek trying to protect those closest to her. If you’re expecting Breq to be a major player in the wider conflict, you may be disappointed by the ending. I wasn’t though; Breq’s story on Athoek is riveting enough to make this a satisfying conclusion, her not being a major player in the wider scheme of things is realistic, and whilst the story wraps up nicely, there is still enough unexplored that it’s possible for more stories in the future.
As usual, there were a few little nitpick complaints I had. Mostly that the lieutenants in the Radch military seem very immature. But then again, traditionally most of the rank and file soldiers of the Radch had been ancillaries, so the concept of a mighty conquering army with immature ‘baby lieutenants’ isn’t too implausible.
The Imperial Radch series is a fun, unique series that you will not want to put down. Thinking about it now, I want to re-read the series again, even though I finished Ancillary Mercy just a couple of months ago. Ancillary Mercy is the perfect conclusion to a truly awesome series.