Title: Ancillary Mercy
Author: Ann Leckie
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.
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.