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Tag: Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

The cover of "Ancillary Mercy" by Ann LeckTitle: Ancillary Mercy
Author: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I bought a copy from the Kobo store

Two years ago when I read Ancillary Justice, I thought it was a dense, but groundbreaking book, a bolt from the blue. Last year when I read its follow-up, Ancillary Sword, I thought it was a decent novel, but I was still bowled over by its predecessor. However, my appreciation of what Leckie was trying to do has increased upon reading with Ancillary Mercy, the final volume of the Imperial Raadch trilogy.

First, a recap: The Raadch is a human empire that spans galaxies, all under the control of Anaander Miannai. Miaanai has been Lord of the Raadch for nearly 3,000 years. Her longevity and her iron grip on power rest on two things: her control of the Raadch’s AI system and her ability to clone herself and implant memories into her clones so that she’s effectively become a network rather than a single person.

Ancillaries — human bodies that have been repurposed to form an AI hive mind — are an integral component of both the technology behind Miaanai’s network of clones and the wider AI system as a whole. But big systems like that have big failure points, and the series has been grappling with the biggest failure point of all: the fact that Anaander’s sense of identity has split into separate political factions. One faction put a stop to both the creation of ancillary troops and the continuous expansion of Raadch space through annexation about 20 years ago. The other faction resents this and has been plotting to overthrow this political decision.

Enter our main character, Breq. Originally an ancillary of the warship Justice of Toren, Breq has waged a one-person war on Anaander Miaanai — all of Anaander Miaanai — ever since Justice of Toren was destroyed as part of a gambit between the two factions. What’s worse, as a result of secret commands that one faction implanted into Justice of Toren‘s AI, one of the ship’s ancillaries was forced to kill Elming Awn, a beloved lieutenant.

As Ancillary Mercy opens, civil war has spread out across the Raadch, and Breq, the sole surviving fragment of what was once Justice of Toren, has been commanded by the anti-annexation faction of Miaanai to maintain peace in the Athoek system. Breq bears no love towards any part of Anaander Miaanai, but she finds value in keeping the planet and its associated space station and AI entities safe.

Plus, she has an ace up her sleeve. And although that ace isn’t played until the end of the book, the outline of that ace is one of the trilogy’s major themes as a whole.

I’ll explain.

One of the things that made Leckie’s debut, Ancillary Justice so memorable a few years ago was that it took a lot of the traditional signifiers of  space opera and military SF — territorial expansion, AIs, FTL travel, and an entrenched military — and wrapped them in decidedly non-traditional garb. Raadch culture has Asian/Indian overtones. Raadch elites have dark skin. The characters take great care in noticing the emotional nuance behind such things as physical contact, tone of voice, clothing, jewelry, and facial expression when communicating. Most notably, Raadch language uses “she” as the default pronoun over “he”.

Ancillary Mercy takes this treatment of military SF tropes to its furthest extent by overturning not only the surface/worldbuilding signifiers of previous works in the genre, but also its plot mechanics and structure. In a military system coming to grips with the presence of a single leader who has essentially fragmented into multiple personalities, you’d expect the series to be resolved by a big, huge, galaxy-spanning conflict. You’d expect lots of lasers and aerial dogfights and twists of fate and stunning reversals and betrayal. You’d expect something epic.

But the ending to Mercy is not epic. By the end of the trilogy, the Raadch is still a functioning political entity. Hell, both factions of Anaander Miaanai’s personality still survive! Breq doesn’t destroy either of them, and the toppling of power regimes like that is the stuff that SF series are made of!

What does happen is something else entirely: Breq uses her empathy with the AIs she meets to win them over to her side and argue for their full equality under the law. More importantly, this argument for AI sentience cuts Miaanai off at the knees — because when I say “the law”, I’m not talking about Raadch law. I’m talking about the treaties that exist between the Raadch and other sentient and much more technologically advanced species.

Remember: Anaander Miaanai’s power comes from her control of AI technology. If AIs are ultimately considered a separate form of life with their own requirement for agency, as Breq argues at the climax of the book, suddenly the whole basis for Miaanai’s rule is founded on slavery and subjugation — which makes her participation in those treaties look a lot less legitimate to those other species. So Miaanai either has to admit that her entry into the treaty is based on a pack of lies, or break the treaty and risk the consequences.

In other words, Breq does an amazing act of metaphorical judo, and I am in awe.

The ending of Ancillary Mercy is quiet. But that’s the point. Leckie has been leading us to expect one thing based on the tropes of the genre, but she delivers us something else. That something else is completely consonant with the worldbuilding she has put in place, but still unexpected. And that’s pretty impressive.

Ancillary Sword cover

Book Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword coverTitle: Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit Books
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got this book: First I borrowed it from the library. However, the eBook is currently on sale for $4.99 on various platforms, so I later bought it from Kobo.

It’s Hugo season, which means that there’s normally a lot I plan to read before voting closes. However, this year’s Sad Puppy bullshit has reduced my reading load considerably. I’m probably going to stick with this year’s Best Novel nominees and Best Graphic Story nominees and avoid the short fiction nominees in general.

Which means that today I’ll talk about Ancillary Sword, which is one of the non-Sad-Puppy nominees for Best Novel this year — and also the sequel to Ancillary Justice, last year’s Best Novel winner.

Normally when I read something for the Hugos, I don’t just ask myself whether I liked it, but also whether it did something new or expanded the genre’s boundaries in some way. Ancillary Justice most definitely did. I loved nearly everything about it, from the spare prose to the way it upended pretty much every trope of space opera: it did things like introduce a language where female pronouns are the default and show a spacefaring human culture with Eastern-influenced religion, food, and aesthetics at its core (one notable example is that the Raadch culture sees dark skin as an elite caste marker).

Given how Justice swept SF’s major awards last year, Ancillary Sword had a lot to live up to. The story starts off almost immediately after the end of the first book, with Breq now given command of her own ship and a fancy new surname indicating her (fake) familial relationship to Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, whose consciousness is spread across thousands of cloned bodies. Breq has been told to travel to Athoek, a planet close to the space station that was ground zero for a coup attempted by one faction of Anaander Mianaai’s clones against another clone faction. Athoek holds a small amount of strategic significance in the looming civil war, as it’s a planet dedicated to farming tea — a beverage seen as the epitome of Radch culture and refinement.

(Of course, it goes without saying that I was full of glee at the prospect of an SF novel taking place on a whole tea-farming planet. Eeee!)

However, Athoek is also personally significant to Breq: it’s home to the sole surviving family member of Lieutenant Awn, whom Breq was forced to kill 20 years ago. Using her newfound status and wealth, Breq hopes to make Awn’s sister her heir in the hopes that this will alleviate some of her guilt.

The rest of the plot is full of political machinations, including a run-in with an elite with a serious sense of sexual entitlement, a potential diplomatic catastrophe with a hostile alien race, discontent among tea plantation labourers, and the increasing mystery of what lies beyond the Ghost Gate, the limits of Radch space.

Despite this, the novel moves at a slow pace, with the majority of it happening on a tea estate in the countryside during a period of mourning. This makes the final few chapters all the more off-kilter, because so many plot threads come to a head at once that the climax feels both rushed and of low stakes.

Ultimately, while I enjoyed Ancillary Sword, I felt that its predecessor was so remarkable in its own right that this sequel pales in comparison. The first one, because of its novelty to me, felt like a bolt from the blue, while this one doesn’t. What effect this will have on my Hugo voting remains to be seen, however, since I’m still only partway through The Three-Body Problem and haven’t even started The Goblin Emperor yet.

Bonus! Ann Leckie goes into more detail here about exactly what tea that citizens in the Radch drink. It turns out I was right in guessing that a significant tea variety in the book is similar to a green oolong! Plus, I’m quite interested to learn that pu’erh is the tea of the Radch lower classes because it’s easy to transport and doesn’t spoil. It makes sense in historical context, but considering last decade’s pu’erh bubble, this news plays against contemporary expectations.

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