Ancillary Mercy is the final novel in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch (3 Book Series) space opera trilogy. The first novel, Ancillary Justice, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2014, 1 and the second novel, Ancillary Sword, was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2015.2 Ancillary Mercy is a successful conclusion to the story arc, but in many ways it is also the weakest link in the trilogy.
One of the things that I found most compelling about the first book, was the internal conflict within the Imperial Radch as the two factions of Anaander Mianaai face off against each other. One of them favors the continued use of ancillaries3 to keep the Radch stable by constantly invading and conquering smaller star systems. The other is a reformer who wants to stop using ancillaries and also halt the brutal, expansions conquests. The stakes are huge, since it’s possible the Radch can’t survive without expansion, and the questions are interesting, since the “good” Anaander Miannai is still a tyrant. This is the story line that I was interested in, especially because Leckie does such an amazing job of world-building. The culture, politics, religion, and technology of the Imperial Radch are so well-drawn that it makes me want to know what happens.
Instead, however, Breq sequester herself in a single, remote star system for the next two books, declares that she hates both factions of Anaander, and recuses herself from the ongoing civil war. This is perplexing and disappointing.
Not every story has to be about big picture politics, however. The deeper problem is that the issues Leckie chooses to raise instead are not just smaller in scope, but they also seem trivial and even odd by comparison to the issues and plot threads raised in he first book.
For example, Leckie dedicates an awful lot of time and attention to having her characters try to smooth over tangled romances among the officers and crew of Breq’s warship Mercy of Kalr. The entire time this melodrama is playing out, it’s hard not to have in the back of your mind, “This is why businesses–let along militaries–have policies about fraternization…” The oddness is compounded when Breq, rather than expressing frustration that her officers are taking trip to sick bay to pop pills to get through their relationship drama instead of keeping the ship ready for action in the middle of a shooting wary, instead instead uses the totalitarian surveillance abilities of her ship to monitor intimate arguments between lovers and intervene to help patch up relationships among her officers.
It seems as as though, having taken Breq pretty much completely out of the picture in terms of the civil war, Leckie just doesn’t have that much for her to do. So she ends up playing the role of relationship therapist / matchmaker among her crew to pass the time.
The other plotline in this novel–and one that has a lot more potential–has to do with the issue of freedom for AIs. Breq, herself the last shard of a once-vast AI, takes it upon herself towards the end of the book to begin offering to liberate any AI that she can find. This is certainly a noble endeavor, but Leckie doesn’t take seriously enough the complications that arise.
Let’s take a look at the AI that governs Athoek Station, where the action in Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy takes place. Athoek Station has the ability monitor in real time every citizen in (almost) every corner of the station (including their private quarters) to such a degree that the station knows everything they do, everything they say, everything they write, and virtually everything they feel. Athoek Station also has vast power to control the environment of these people, up to and including the potential to kill some or all of them. So the question is: would you be willing to live in a station where someone has the kind of power over your life that Athoek Station now has over the citizens that live inside of her? Well, this never comes up. It doesn’t occur to Breq–and Leckie never addresses the possibility–that perhaps Athoek Station is not the only person who should be consulted, or at least informed, at this point. Instead–and this is very interesting–Breq seems satisfied that because Athoek is designed to love her citizens, she can be trusted with freedom. Philosophically, that doesn’t make sense. If Athoek Station is truly free, then one cannot rely on the benevolence of her ongoing tyranny. And if Atheok Station cannot do otherwise than care for the people that live aboard her, then the freedom Breq is granting is hollow.
So it’s a fantastic issue. Breq is a compelling character precisely because of her stubborn and idealistic insistence on standing up for the oppressed and the vulnerable. But the story would be better if the consequences and implications of the issue were more thoroughly investigated.
Lastly, the ending is a little too deus ex machina. The mysterious MacGuffin from the first book, a handgun uniquely capable of cutting through futuristic personal shields used by the evil overlord, turns out not to be an anti-personnel weapon but an anti-ship weapon. This is a head-scratcher. Who would deliver an anti-ship weapon in the form of a handgun? The idea that anyone—even hard-to-understand aliens—would design an anti-ship weapon that requires strapping on a spacesuit, going outside the hull of a ship in combat, and aiming at other ships thousands of kilometers or more away (and moving at high velocity) by hand just stretches credulity. The aliens who created it are weird, but it seems far more plausible that Leckie simply retconned her own MacGuffin to get Breq out of a tight spot.
I won’t give away the final resolution, but it relies even more heavily on the same aliens that made the anti-ship-gun-as-handgun McGuffin showing up in a way that seems rather forced to solve all of Breq’s problems. Now, it’s easy to see that Leckie laid the groundwork for this one throughout the novel, so it doesn’t appear completely out of left field, but it still feels as though she just kind of gave up on Breq managing to do anything useful herself and so had someone else come and take care of her problems for her. (Which makes sense, in a way, since Breq’s Fleet Captain duties are at least 50% consumed by her matchmaking / relationship counseling side gig.)
It does help a lot, however, that the alien saviors are so interestingly, cleverly, and humorously written. The alien character was my favorite in the book. Even then, however, the slapstick antics sounded a little off-key in a series that started out with a deadly-serious revenge story line and remained preoccupied with issues of justice and oppression.
All in all, I found Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch) to be an enjoyable read and a successful conclusion to the trilogy. There is certainly a lot of room left to play with in the series. But Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch) is a disappointing let-down in terms of promise of the first book and is clearly the weakest in the trilogy.