Ancillary Mercy – by Ann Leckie

After reading Ancillary Sword, I thought I had found a pattern in the Imperial Radch trilogy – so if the first book had built the world in broad strokes, and the second one had got a more focused scope, I expected the final volume to go back to large-scale conflicts and wrap up all themes and plots in an epic conclusion. It turns out I was wrong. While Ancillary Mercy does develop some themes that had been foreshadowed from the very beginning, it does so in a less expected way; in the end not everything is tied up as I had imagined, but the novel feels like a satisfying conclusion anyway. Perhaps even more so.

Title: Ancillary Mercy

Author: Ann Leckie

Publisher: Orbit Books

Publication Date: 6 October 2015

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 330

Standalone or Series: Third book of the Imperial Radch trilogy

Synopsis: After the turmoils of Ancillary Sword, Athoek Station is getting all sorts of unwanted attention: on the one hand, after the death of their previous envoy, a new Translator is sent by the Presger – the ineffable, incredibly powerful alien civilization with whom the Radch had signed a treaties long ago. On the other hand, the reactionary faction of the divided Anaander Mianaai is back and determined to restore her rule. Caught in the midst of the conflict, Breq tries to exploit the circumstances to her and her friends’s advantage.

Analysis: Ancillary Mercy is stylistically similar to the other books of the trilogy; once again, we hear the story as told by Breq, following her now familiar point of view and speech pattern. In this third novel I couldn’t help but notice how often the events of the previous books were resumed and explained to the reader, a choice that was surely helpful for those who didn’t remember them clearly enough, but that as a side effect slightly disrupted the flow of the narration, especially as Mercy comes across as a very direct continuation of Sword.

While the novel deals once again with themes – such as class, power dynamics, imperialism – that we’ve already acquainted with, I am here more interested in what makes this third book a very peculiar conclusion. As I mentioned, given the premise of the trilogy, where Breq starts out swearing bloody vengeance against an entire Empire, one could have easily expected either a very epic or a very tragic conclusion.

Ancillary Mercy does indeed deal with some high-stakes conflict, however for a large part of the novel the focus is once again on small interactions, on conversations between emotional AIs and troubled officiers while sipping tea; as the final conflict draws closer, personal relationships appear even more important, the little things of life feel more urgent than ever. And while the contingency is dire, the tone of the narration is noticeably more humorous, thanks to the eccentric personality of Translator Zeiat, who might be the emissary of the most powerful and terrifying entity in the entire universe, but keeps on behaving like a upbeat and gluttonous fish out of water (any pun on Zeiat’s love for seafood is unintended).

But talking about the Presger: up to this point, they had been looming at the edge of the setting, serving as a silent threat that could have easily obliterated the Radch, and that was only kept at bay by a treatise that established to protect all species they deemed Significant. In the end, their influence become decisive not through their direct intervention, but thanks to a loophole in the terms of the treatise: in a final confrontation, Breq suggests that AIs are distinct entities from humanity, but also fit all the requirements for Significance, and are thus safe from Mianaai’s influence. Which allows Breq to carve a small but still exceptional amount of independence.

From a traditional standpoint, it could look like an anticlimatic ending, that leaves several unsolved questions about the state of the universe, and too many contendants alive. If we look back, however, we can see how such a conclusion doesn’t lack its poetic sense if we consider Breq’s path: that had started with a dramatic (and objectively unlikely) quest for ultimate vengeange, that however was continuosuly detoured by Breq’s habit to rescue all the stray people she met, building a found family along the way and, at the same time, proving her personhood in its fullest. In the end, Breq’s vengeance doesn’t come in the shape of a sudden annhilation of a power so much larger than anything she controls, but in fully reclaiming herself from her subjected state, and in eroding that power in a way that may seem small, but that would have normally seemed impossible.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Ancillary Mercy took me by surprise at first, but I came to really enjoy it; its unusal twist on what could have been a more traditional narrative made me stop and think to what a victory looks like, to what shapes a revolution can take. It also goes back to a theme – that of personhood, and ultimately of Breq’s own heart and worth – that has not just been discussed theoretically, but concretely shown and experienced throughout the series. That said, I can see how not everyone might enjoy such a conclusion, but if you’ve read the previous books you certainly don’t want to miss the final one.

Content Warning: War – Genocide – Violence

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