Review: Ancillary Mercy

ancillary-mercyAncillary Mercy, the third and final book in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy following the ex-spaceship-AI Breq in her quest for justice in a colonising space empire, is very much a loose-end-tying book. It doesn’t quite have its own distinct character, as the first two books do, and as a result I’ve had some difficulty “fixing” it in my mind, as it were.

In this final instalment, Anaander Mianaai, the many-bodied Lord of the Radch whose personality has split down the centre and thrown the Radchaai empire into chaos in the process, has appeared on the edge of Athoek system, which Breq is trying to protect with her ship Mercy of Kalr – and, worse news, it’s the part of Anaander most hostile to Breq. The novel sees Breq trying to mitigate the potential damage Anaander might do to the vulnerable system, as well as dealing with a racially-motivated dispute over repairs to Athoek station and the sudden, unwelcome appearance of a messenger from the unpredictable alien race the Presger.

One of the things Ancillary Mercy is doing is thinking about worldviews. Like many comedies of manners (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series always comes to mind, although the settings are very different), it’s looking at how different worldviews overlap and interact, and how what’s obvious to one person is invisible to another.

A key way Leckie achieves this is through Breq’s narration. Throughout the series Breq’s been in the interesting position of being a first-person narrator who is, at least in some respects, omniscient: as an AI mind she’s able to download intimate information about her crew’s emotional state, as well as data pertaining to her ship (which has its own AI). In this book, though, two things happen: Breq begins to realise how intrusive her requests for this emotional data might be, and begins to stop doing it; and, simultaneously, her own assumptions about how to interpret the behaviour of her officers and her ship are undermined, questioned, shown to be wrong. It’s a reminder on a fundamental structural level of the warping effect the privileging of certain “authoritative” narratives can have.

This textual technique is echoed thematically as Breq and her crew attempt to keep peace on the station. The dispute about repairs to the Undergarden, for instance, engendered by the privileged Athoek priesthood, tells a narrative that’s ostensibly about fairness – shouldn’t the refurbished homes in the Undergarden revert back to those families who were originally assigned them? – but which encodes a worldview in which the minority group the Ychana, who have inhabited the damaged Undergarden for years because nobody else wanted to be there, are unimportant, are not “civilised” – a word which also means “citizen” in Radchaai, in a typically Leckian observation of how oppression is often implicit in language.

The ending of the novel, too, really turns on a difference in worldviews that quite neatly brings the various threads of the trilogy to a close, but I won’t spoil it.

Accordingly, it’s a novel that focuses on people rather than on action. There are a couple of explodey action sequences, but they’re the least interesting bits of the book, and it’s clear that Breq is keen to avoid anything that might endanger civilian life, which any violence will do automatically.

In fact, one of the other things that Ancillary Mercy does rather well, which we don’t see very often in SF or indeed any literature, is showing people doing their jobs. Breq’s activities on Athoek station may look like an endless round of tea and socialising, but what she’s actually doing is pretty much analogous to what a senior manager does: she’s going to meetings, managing her staff, walking a tightrope of diplomacy and politics to keep the peace, keep the system running. Like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, it’s a book that’s very positive about people who create collaborative and non-combative working environments that have room for differing worldviews and narratives. Both books posit this sort of socialist model workplace that maps out a way towards social justice and tolerance.

So despite the SFnal trappings, the explosions and the politics, Ancillary Mercy reads as a novel about people living day-to-day, ordinary lives, putting constant and sometimes humdrum work in to achieve some quite important outcomes. It’s a personal novel, ultimately, a book about the constant one-foot-in-front-of-the-other work of life that can make a small corner of the universe a bit better – and which sees that work as necessary and valuable and important.

If there’s one flaw with Ancillary Mercy it’s that it’s a bit too positive. The Breq of the first book, Ancillary Justice, is a very different person – interesting because she is calculating, amoral and capable of atrocity. I don’t think we get a sense across the trilogy of how she has come to recognise the unfairness of the society she was built to serve, and occasionally her attitudes do seem just a bit conveniently liberal.ancillary-mercy

Still, I’ve enjoyed these books: thoughtful, personable SF about a culture that’s very different but all too recognisable.

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