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Tag: Orbit

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.

The Broken Kingdoms and the Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

broken_kingdoms_coverTitle: The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance Trilogy books 2 & 3)
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Format: Print
Rating: 4/5 for The Broken Kingdoms; 3/5 for The Kingdom of Gods
How I got these books: As Christmas presents (because my in-laws are awesome)

Long-time readers of the blog know that I read and reviewed N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season last year, and it completely bowled me over. However, before I read that, I read and reviewed her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms 2 years ago. So when I got The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods for Christmas a few months ago, it just seemed like the natural thing to do to read them this year.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms ended with Yeine Darre, heir to the Arameri throne, ascending into godhood and becoming the second incarnation of Enefa, goddess of dawns and dusks, balance, and life. Upon her ascension, she and Nahadoth, the nightlord, punished the third god of their triumvirate by making him human and stripping him of the majority of his power. The goal was to make Itempas, lord of light and order, understand the privations of human life so that he could eventually “earn” his powers back.

At the beginning of The Broken Kingdoms, it’s been about a decade since Yeine’s ascension, and a young blind artist named Oree Shoth takes pity on a broken man she encounters, inviting him in for shelter and companionship. The thing is, even though she’s blind, she can see him. He gives off amazing bursts of light that only she can see within her head. Obviously, this newcomer — whom she dubs “Shiny” — must be more than he appears.

However, things in the capital city of Shadow are going haywire. Godlings have re-entered the mortal plane, and while their antics are fun to encounter (and also Oree’s bread and butter, since she sells handmade objects of worship), something completely new and unexpected has started happening: Godlings are dying.

Godlings can’t die. Or at least, they shouldn’t be able to. So who is doing this? And why? Oree’s ability to see magical power may be the key to answering both questions.

Of course, just because questions are answered doesn’t mean there won’t be new ones in the future.

kingdom_of_gods_coverThe Kingdom of Gods takes place about a century after the end of The Broken Kingdoms. And in this third book, Jemisin takes her interest in liminal beings, in narrators who stand on the thresholds between different levels of power, and turns it on its head. Where Yeine was a woman who became a god and Oree was a woman with mixed mortal/immortal heritage, the narrator of The Kingdom of Gods is a mirror image of these two: Sieh is the god of childhood and immaturity, and he’s gradually becoming human. Over the course of the novel, his descent into mortality intensifies, because if there’s one thing that’s antithetical to the living, eternal embodiment of childhood, it’s the reality of growing old and frail.

The more I’ve read of Jemisin, the more I see what sort of tactics she uses to corral her characters towards the endpoint of the narrative. Characters may rapidly change their outlooks and behaviours, but those changes are rooted in a strong sense of ego and self-preservation. Things turn on a dime, become chaotic, become messy, become angry, become contradictory — but that’s because she takes great pains to portray the motivations and differing psychologies of the people in the story, and deftly interrogates exactly where everyone’s rough edges grind up against everyone else’s.

That said, I felt a real sense of diminishing returns between the first and the second book, and especially between the second and the third. As the stakes increasingly become larger, with first kingdoms, then gods, then entire universes at risk, the effect on me as a reader got duller and duller. It felt like I was being smothered in Epic — okay, so the god of vengeance tries to manipulate the entire universe by making a bajillion magially-infused masks explode while people are wearing them so he can reap their lifeforce, gain even more power, and thus overthrow the Big Three. Lots of things are exploding. Ho hum.

While the Inheritance trilogy overall is inventive in how it investigates concepts like colonialism, imperialism, power structures, entitlement, identity, and more, the last two books didn’t hit as hard to me as the first one did. Worst of all, the slow unspooling of backstory — like what caused Itempas to want to kill Enefa in the first place, or the fact that Enefa raped her own son at some point — felt anticlimactic. Itempas decided to kill Enefa because he was feeling jealous and left out when she and Nahadoth were spending time together. Before that, Enefa raped Sieh, her own son, because she was feeling lonely over being left out of Nahadoth and Itempas spending time together. In the end, it felt like the biggest issues at play — the reason why the whole universe risks flickering out like a candle — because three omnipotent beings just don’t have the rationality and emotional intelligence to, y’know, just talk things out.

Either that, or one could snarkily assume that the entire point of the series is that threesomes just don’t work. I dunno.

Maybe the real point Jemisin is trying to make is that gods have the same frailties as humans, that no matter how much power and control you have, you can still fuck up? That’s a more realistic assessment, but still — you’d think that the gods who created the universe the entire story is being told in could get their shit together.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: Orogene Lives Matter

The Fifth Season by N.K. JemisinTitle: The Fifth Season
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed it from the library

Essun lives in a shattered world. The Stillness is a land of earthquakes and volcanoes and tectonic calamities that darken the skies and blight the land for years. In fact, such a catastrophe has just been unleashed, a great red rift snaking out from the capital, Yumenes, into the heart of the continent. The society of the Stillness has adapted to these changes and built up a body of lore to withstand such calamities — known as fifth seasons — when they happen.

But Essun’s world has shattered for a different reason: her son has just died. What’s worse, he died at the hands of her beloved husband, who has run away from town with their daughter in tow. But the awful truth of it all is this: her son was killed because he was an orogene, like her — a person born with the ability to control the energy of the planet itself. In a world of such unstable composition and geology, orogenes are feared, shunned, and manipulated in equal measure. And now Essun must travel across the cracked and trembling earth to find her daughter, Nassun, before Nassun meets the same fate as her brother.

Essun is only one lens through which the lives of orogenes are examined in such a (literally) unstable world. There’s also Syenite, an orogene trained by the Fulcrum, the government body that finds, fosters, and trains orogenes from a young age so they can be “prove their use” to the state. Such proof includes preventing and neutralizing tectonic events or doing grunt work like cleaning out coral-encrusted harbours. Life under the Fulcrum is harsh, but at least orogenes there have a purpose.

Of course, the fact that Fulcrum-trained orogenes live a circumscribed life, where survival can be ensured only through continued compliance and conformity, is something that those in power conveniently never say out loud. Bits of lore about the world of the Stillness, including excerpts from major religious and political texts, are included at the end of each chapter. Here’s a charming example:

Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.

— Erlsset, twenty-third emperor of the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation, in the thirteenth year of the season of Teeth. Comment recorded at a party, shortly before the founding of the Fulcrum.

Syenite’s slow realization that no matter how hard she tries, she’ll always be viewed as a thing, a threat, forms a major backbone of the book.

The third lens through which we learn about the world of The Fifth Season is Damaya, a young girl who has recently manifested orogene ability. She’s been entrusted to a Guardian, a person who is responsible for monitoring orogenes and bringing rogue ones to heel. Travelling to the Fulcrum under the supervision of her guardian is fun, at first, but Damaya is taught about her place in the world quickly:

“I’m not sorry for the pain I’ve caused you, little one, because you needed to learn the lesson of that pain. What do you understand about me now?”

She shakes her head. Then she makes herself answer, because of course that is the point. “I have to do what you say or you’ll hurt me.”


“And,” she adds, “you’ll hurt me even when I do obey. If you think you should.”

“Yes.” She can actually hear his smile. He nudges a stray braid away from her cheek, letting the backs of his fingers brush her skin. “What I do is not random, Damaya. It’s about control. Give me no reason to doubt yours, and I will never hurt you again. Do you understand?”

Questions about control, humanity, and how we Other people by simultaneously fearing and subjugating them run all throughout The Fifth Season. This is a book that I honestly don’t think could have been published before 2015. It’s too raw, too deep, too pulsing and red and full of uncomfortable truths about systems of power and oppression to have been saleable within the fantasy publishing market 5 or even 3 or 2 years ago — there just weren’t enough open ears and hearts willing to hear the message this book truly conveys.

(Hell, I count myself among that audience who probably wouldn’t have been ready. I like to think of myself as inclusive and liberal and respectful of others, but I’ve led a fairly privileged life. I have blinders on just like the next nominally progressive but politically inert white/straight/hetero/cis/ablebodied person.)

But in a world where Michael Brown and Rekia Boyd and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Renisha McBride and Freddie Gray and so many others die every day because we refuse to acknowledge how destructive our own national myths and and history and lore are, this book is vital. Necessary, even, because sometimes we need to read about a made-up world to help us realize how untrue our own world is in so many ways.

Damn, this is a book you need to read. Seriously. The politics of The Fifth Season are there on the surface, openly defiant, daring you to look away. And I can’t. And we shouldn’t. (And, of course, it fills me with pleasure to think how the Sad Puppy contingent would go absolutely apoplectic when reading a book like this. Because SF books shouldn’t be political, dammit, unless they adhere to some Golden Age fascist/militaristic wet dream! Obviously.)

What’s more, Jemisin is willing to take risks in her narration — gorgeous risks that pay off once every moving tectonic plate of story melts together and you see just how precisely the seams have been laid. Essun’s story is told in second person, while Syenite’s and Damaya’s are told in third person. However, taken together, they form a thematic whole.

And the ending, where the three stories converge and the past actions of one character echo the current circumstances of another, contain revelations that are, literally, earth-shattering.

In short: fuck yes, I will nominate this for a Hugo.

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