A Hero’s Journey is Over: A Review of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy

ancillary-mercy-by-ann-leckie-500x750Ancillary Mercy (2015)
Written by: Ann Leckie
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 368 (Trade Paperback)
Series: Book Three of The Imperial Radch trilogy
Publisher: Orbit

Why I Chose It: I have to admit that when I read Ancillary Justice (the first of this trilogy), I got kind of obsessed with the idea of a sentient spaceship seeking justice. I was delighted that this was a first person POV of a thousands of years old spaceship who was once a many-bodied being now having just one. The details of this existence were so good too: Breq trying to not to draw attention, but not being able to distinguish genders, acting a little too emotionless, and being noticed anyway. And I was caught up by the mystery — what exactly happened to Breq and who is the enemy? Basically Ancillary Justice drew me in with the set up for Breq’s quest, and with the introduction of Breq as an unlikely, diminished hero. I kept reading the series because I wanted to find out where the quest was going to take her.

Premise:

For a moment, things seemed to be under control for Breq, the soldier who used to be a warship. Then a search of Athoek Station’s slums turns up someone who shouldn’t exist, and a messenger from the mysterious Presger empire arrives, as does Breq’s enemy, the divided and quite possibly insane Anaander Mianaai – ruler of an empire at war with itself.

Breq refuses to flee with her ship and crew, because that would leave the people of Athoek in terrible danger. The odds aren’t good, but that’s never stopped her before.

This review contains spoilers for the earlier books, Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword


Discussion:  In my mind, Ancillary Justice (book 1) is the “quest for revenge” book, Ancillary Sword (book 2) is the “social justice bridge” book, and Ancillary Mercy is the “Breq has friends now” book.

In Ancillary Justice, Breq is moving towards a goal. We don’t always know what this goal is, but she has something that is pushing her on. As it unfolds, there are long flashbacks which slowly reveal the terrible event that ignited Breq’s quest for justice. It’s probably the book with the greatest sense of peril for Breq because she’s hiding who she is, she’s so much less than she once was, her enemy is literally the Lord of all civilization. Breq doesn’t have much to rely on besides herself: all she has is her own wits and resources, and she has the added burden of a drug addicted ex-officer to keep alive.

Once Ancillary Sword (book 2) begins, Breq’s been pulled into the war between the two factions of Anaander Mianaai. Even though the Lord of the Radch’s disregard for everyone but herself is loathsome to Breq, she sees the value in stopping the destruction of intersystem gates and is sent to the Athoek Station to do that. She gets her own ship (the Mercy of Kalr), a new rank (Fleet Captain), and new name (Mianaai). While Breq has a general goal of ruining Anaander Mianaai’s plans, the focus is on social justice issues both on the station and planet-side. These are things connected to the Radch Empire and how it has been run during the secret war for power, but fixing social issues on a space station makes for a plot that it’s a more vague direction-wise compared to a revenge quest.

Now in the final installment, everyone knows that Breq is an ancillary because she confesses so at the end of Ancillary Sword. If Ancillary Justice (book 1) had to do with the start of Breq’s hero’s journey with a grimly angry Breq moving forward toward her singular goal, and Ancillary Sword (book 2) has a more mellow Breq, I think Ancillary Mercy is about how much Breq’s relationships have grown. Beyond having one ally that was there because Breq saved him, Breq has crew that has come to know her, weird quirks and all. Then there are the surprising allies that were a little convenient for the plot, but I liked them because they were new and weird in what would otherwise be a straightforward space battle story. I think part of why we got here is because Breq admitted who she was and revealed her grief in the process. Ancillary_Mercy_by_Ann_LeckieIt’s endearing, like her stoic demeanor that she maintains while simultaneously monitoring her crew like a mother hen (this may be a ship thing). The concern goes both ways. There are a lot of fun interactions between Breq and others now that a team has formed around her.  To me, this was one of the best parts of the story. (My favorite character is actually Seivarden: his relationship with Breq and character growth fascinates me).

I mentioned that this is a space battle story. I would say that there’s more a little bit more action in this than the middle book, but I’m not really sure if most readers will see this as an action-packed book. We get some cool shooting with a gun at enemy ships, but then the story returns back to Athoek Station, or involves waiting on the Mercy of Kalr. This is part of the trade off of having these interesting character interactions — sometimes it can feel like there’s too much breathing room between one action scene and the next, too much character and relationship development, not enough forward momentum. This really comes down to what kind of reader you are. If you are into character study, the pace will work or you, but if you need to feel a greater sense of urgency than what’s here, you may end up feeling disappointed. I am on the side of having some patience and enjoying the characters, so I liked it and had no problems.

Oh, and the ending. It’s a combination of fighting and wits and some seat-of-your pants diplomacy that resolves everything quite nicely. Again: fun. I found this a pretty satisfying way to wrap up the trilogy, but wouldn’t mind if Ann Leckie wrote other books in this universe. I would love a story that explains Seivarden’s lost years, for example, or one that centered on whatever Tisarwat does next.

In Conclusion: It’s not surprising that this was nominated for the Hugo. Every single one of the books in this series has been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the first book (Ancillary Justice) won in 2014. Will it win? I’m not sure. I think that when Ancillary Justice came out, reading it felt so fresh because of the narrator that had no concept of gender. Add the idea of ancillaries, and AI, the revenge plot, the mystery and danger of Breq’s situation, and no wonder it won. In Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy these things aren’t new anymore, and revenge, which seemed to propel Ancillary Justice, isn’t what propels the second and third installments. I think the writing itself is really strong in all three books, but to win the Hugo, there needs to be an edge, like the thrill of something new that Ancillary Justice had. This one has a couple of things in it’s favor — it feels a bit more fun then the earlier books because of the way the relationships have progressed over the three books, and there’s a hopeful ending. I just don’t know if that’s enough of a leg up against the competition.

Bonus: Did you know that there are short stories centered in this universe online? They are:

5 Comments

  • Sharon Patry August 19, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    How did I miss this series? It seems like both the gender issues and the spaceship-as-soldier issues could almost be disorienting to a reader, but it sounds like Leckie was able to pull it off. I need to go back and start with the first one.

    Reply
  • Shara White August 20, 2016 at 7:50 am

    So I remember reading ANCILLARY JUSTICE and being absolutely enthralled. I felt less so with ANCILLARY SWORD, and yet less so with ANCILLARY MERCY. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like them. I absolutely did. But there’s something REALLY super-powerful about the first book. Perhaps it’s the revenge story aspect you mention (and The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite classics ever), but I think too is the learning curve to the world-building and pronoun usage. There’s something very powerful about reading a book where ALL of the pronouns are female, regardless of gender, and learning to make that the norm was really eye-opening.

    I’d be surprised if this won though, only because it’s the third in a trilogy and if people hadn’t read the first two, they weren’t likely to read this one, or if people missed book two, same reason, OR if they didn’t like book one or book two (or flagged them as DNFs), same reason.

    It’ll be interesting!

    Reply
    • Sharon Patry August 20, 2016 at 9:34 am

      Hmm, well then it certainly sounds like the first book is a no-brainer!

      Reply
      • Shara White August 20, 2016 at 1:38 pm

        I really like the trilogy. It’s one of those, though, that benefits from being read back to back, rather than one book per year. 😉 It’ll be good to re-read it one day!

        Reply

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