It feels like just yesterday that Ann Leckie took the science fiction scene by storm with Ancillary Justice. I enjoyed her debut novel for what it was—a ripping good story set in a universe with just enough originality to make it fun and familiarity to make it conceivable. Now, suddenly, here we are at the conclusion of the trilogy with Ancillary Mercy. I'm all a-tingle!
Breq has come a long way since she was just an ancillary of Justice of Toren. Now an independent entity in her own mind, she strives to establish her identity. But no one is making it easy. A part of Anaander Mianaai that really hates her (as opposed to just mildly hating her) has shown up at Athoek and wants to take over the joint. Breq has to think fast to save as many lives as possible, but it’s not easy to come up with a solution that will please everyone. Indeed, Ancillary Mercy underscores the difficulty of reaching any kind of stability in the midst of a larger conflict.
Identity has been one of the longest-running motifs in this series, and it all comes to a head here. In the first book, Breq had to struggle with feeling like she was still Justice of Toren but greatly diminished. She finally comes to grips with that in Ancillary Sword, only to have to conceal her nature as an ancillary from everyone and pretend to be a human. Now in this book, everyone learns that Breq is an ancillary—just as she’s figuring out that she is more than an ancillary, or a fragment of a ship AI, but something different entirely. On a wider level, Leckie has Breq question the role that ships play in the Radch. It's not as simple as “ships are slaves” or “AIs are sentient and therefore need rights,” because the ships have been programmed to have certain desires (like wanting a crew and a captain). Breq is special in that she is the first to actually ask the ships what they want.
Most of the main characters undergo similar transformations. Seivarden continues to deal with being so out of time. Tisarwat is trying to pick up the pieces of herself following Anaander's imposition of her personality. And then there's the lovely zaniness of Translator Zeiat (who is not, as she first thought, Translator Dlique). You could spend a lot of time just thinking about all the different ways Leckie signifies and symbolizes identity, from modes of dress to ethnic categories to language.
There is a lot going on here, despite Ancillary Mercy being on the shorter end of novels. Leckie’s worldbuilding is tightly-packed, and that’s very rewarding. Of all the three books, this one also has the best pacing. I wasn’t a huge fan of the lengthy quest structure of the first book, and while I enjoyed the second book’s plot, there were points where it started to drag. None of the events in this book, in contrast, really overstay their welcome.
I suspect what will draw the most attention, however, will be the ending. There is a lot of pressure for Leckie to wrap up loose ends—and she never pretends that she will be able to do so. Breq would be happy to take down Anaander and the entire Radch. But that would be too neat, too simple—and if Leckie has demonstrated anything over the course of this series, it’s that events are seldom simple. Ancillary Mercy's focus remains narrowly on the Athoek system, and this works for it. Breq’s problems are already big enough.
Once again, Breq’s unique ability to perceive multiple perspectives concurrently allows for some slick narration. Instead of scene breaks to signal perspective changes, everything just flows smoothly together. This helps us understand Breq’s thought processes: for her, something happening elsewhere being relayed through Ship is just as real and present as something happening in front of her body. I find this fascinating, because we already practice this kind of split presence with the Internet. We can be online, in multiple chatrooms or forums at once, or having a video conference while also talking to people physically in the room with us. We might not be ancillaries, but sometimes we get close….
There’s so much to enjoy in this book, and I’m not sure what else I would highlight. If I have to make a sweeping statement about this book and this series—and I don’t, but I’m going to—it’s that Ancillary Mercy strikes a good balance between storytelling and theme. This is something that science fiction can easily get wrong—so much good SF overcompensates, privileging one or the other. Leckie manages to deliver novels that are complete, entertaining stories that also deal with important issues of identity, self-awareness, duty, and sacrifice. There is believable political intrigue. And there are characters who are unlikable but redeemable (like Seivarden) and likable but maybe not redeemable.