Fiction Reviews

Ancillary Mercy

(2015) Ann Leckie, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 330pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50242-7


This is the final in the space operatic 'Ancillary' trilogy that began with the 2014 Hugo winning novel Ancillary Justice that also won the 2014 Clarke Award (juried), Nebula Award and Locus Award, as well as tying for the 'Best Novel' BSFA Award.  Its sequel, Ancillary Sword, won the BSFA Award and Locus Award as well as being nominated for a Hugo and nominated for a Nebula.  Indeed this novel, Ancillary Mercy, itself was nominated for a Hugo.  So, if you have not already guessed, this 'Ancillary' trilogy is something a little special.

If you have not yet read Ancillary Justice then you need to do that first before reading the others and, if you have not then you should not read any further as this review will contain spoilers.

Given that you are still reading, I will take it that you have read the previous two novels (hence know the set-up) and so really only want to know whether or not it is worth getting Ancillary Mercy and/or my personal take?

Ancillary Mercy provides a fitting conclusion to the trilogy. The second novel, Ancillary Sword, though significantly progressing the story, was slightly slower-paced and subdued compared to Ancillary Justice.  With Ancillary Mercy it is all hands to the pump as the hostile clone ruler Anaander Mianaai (who with other clones is at war with yet other of his ruler clones) comes to the Athoek tea-growing system and after Breq (the sole-survivor fragment of an interstellar ship in human form).  The station in orbit about the tea-growing world has just got over civil unrest that destroyed a portion of the space station and the death of the mysterious alien (in human form) Presger ambassador, when a new Presger ambassador arrives.  Given that the Presger are incredibly advanced, and until recently treated humans as low-life animals (only when the Presger recognised humans as being 'significant' did relations improve), it is the last thing that Breq needs with the vicious Anaander Mianaai about to arrive…

Ancillary Mercy successfully ties the various plot thread ends together that were introduced in the first two books. We get to learn why the Presger allow some of its weaponry fall into human (rebel) hands and, of course, one of the Anaander Mianaai clones gets its due comeuppance.

Personally speaking, I am just a little at odds with the broader speculative fiction community regarding this trilogy's standing given all the aforesaid awards and award nominations it has received. Yes, I do concur with them that with the 'Ancillary' trilogy Ann Leckie has managed to craft a solid space operatic SF that is in concept terms far more engaging than say Star Wars (which has also won a Hugo), but I do find that some of the themes and plot elements that seem to have so engaged others a little flawed. Chief among these is that I find it difficult to conceive that Breq – who can read physiological signals such as pulse and breathing – cannot distinguish between genders, or that a technological civilisation – albeit a very alien one – cannot recognise significant sentience in another technological civilisation capable of interstellar travel. Now, if such were minor throw-away concepts thrown into the story for added colour then it would matter less, but these are actually quite central to the books' set-up and plot. To my mind it is the resonance between fractious clones (Anaander Mianaai) and a fractured artificial intelligence (AI) that is more interesting an idea (it even has the nature vs. nurture debate in the mix), yet that resonance is not fully explored: it is simply there (as is the limply explained gender blindness). And then there is the fact that there were very worthy competitor works also shortlisted for the awards these books have won. Taking all this together, and while I accept that these are very enjoyable and even somewhat thought-provoking books, I wonder why the speculative community (the community of both SF and fantasy fans that considerably overlap) made all the fuss of them they did?

I confess I have no clear answer to this question. But I do suspect that a number of elements that this trilogy contains chimed with the early 21st century Anglophone SF community, and that it was this number and combination that elevated it to garner its awards and award nominations.  For example, the gender blindness of the principal protagonist speaks to the politically progressive elements within the speculative community (and with which I sympathise, though that in itself does not make a book one of great SF achievement). Indeed one wonders whether the gender blindness would have worked so well if everyone had been referred to as 'he' (instead of 'she')?  The political machinations are carefully constructed and as good as any that might be found in an epic fantasy or for that matter a mundane (non-SF) political intrigue: indeed, the feudalism in its purest sense is more a fantasy than and SFnal trope. Importantly, there is sense of wonder with the mysterious alien Presger, together with the use of a plethora of SF tropes: interstellar travel, wormhole gates, super (albeit not ray) guns, artificial intelligence (AI), human-AI interfaces, cloning, space-suited EVAs (extra vehicle activities), space elevators and so forth. And so maybe it is the package of all these that speaks to the speculative fiction community, and that maybe I am too much of a pure SF fan with overly constrained thought processes from a lifetime of science?

So what is next? Well, the author has said that she has no (current?) intention of writing any more Breq books, but she may well continue to explore the 'Ancillary' universe in other ways.  There is little doubt that she has found a substantive readership and I am sure that these future novels will be eagerly awaited.

Jonathan Cowie

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