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ANCILLARY MERCY is an Emotionally Complex, Compelling Conclusion to Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy

REVIEW SUMMARY: Ann Leckie concludes the Imperial Radch series with the same sort of excitement and narrative mastery that propelled Ancillary Justice to the top of the charts.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The long anticipated conclusion to the Hugo Award winning Imperial Radch series.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Unique and original action scenes; brisk narrative drags you through the pages; satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.
CONS: Overpowered super-secret weapon wins the day; certain character relationships are left unresolved.
BOTTOM LINE: Ancillary Mercy delivered a compelling story full of action and emotional complexity that I consumed in a single sitting.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, I liked, but did not love, the first book in the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Justice. I thought it a deserving candidate (and eventual winner) of the Hugo Award, however, as it did a number of things (including, though not limited to, peculiar pronoun shenaniganry) that set it apart from the rest of the field.

Then came along Ancillary Sword, a book which—as the second in the series—carries the burden of telling both a compelling ‘self-contained’ story, while also setting up the narrative threads which are to coalesce in the climax of the third book. Surprisingly, in a Hugo year fraught with turmoil, Ancillary Sword managed to sneak onto the ballot. This was strange to me, however, because Ancillary Sword (in my eyes at least) suffered by comparison to its predecessor. The story itself was slow and inconsequential in terms of the galactic battle occurring between the supreme ruler Anaander Mianaai’s multiple selves.

Whereas Ancillary Justice told an intensely engaging story of revenge through the eyes of a truly unique protagonist on a galactic scale, Ancillary Sword floundered in its myopic focus on the rural political machinations of a backwater station that really did not serve to progress the global story overly much.

So, with that said, I went into the third and final book of the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Mercy, with a fair amount of enthusiasm tempered by equal parts trepidation. Could Leckie rediscover the magic and compelling narrative of Ancillary Justice? Or would the story fizzle out and climax with a lackluster sputter?

Well, despite some hiccups along the way, Ancillary Mercy actually delivered quite well on the promises made in Ancillary Justice. Leckie returns her attention to the civil war between Anaander’s rivaling selves, the galactic consequences of that war, while also tying in all the little plot threads from Ancillary Sword to tell a very compelling story.

Interestingly, though I would not choose to re-read Ancillary Sword, the character development and world-building done there does a brilliant job setting the stage for Ancillary Mercy to come in and clean up with a rollicking good yarn. I would compare this, perhaps, to eating your vegetables (Ancillary Sword) so that you might fully enjoy the dessert (Ancillary Mercy).

Alright, so enough bagging on Sword, let’s talk about what makes Mercy so darn good.

First, the global story finally has consequences for our heroes. Anaander Mianaai has come to town and things get heated right quick. More so than either of its predecessors, Ancillary Mercy has a sense of immediacy about it. The time for waiting, plotting, and scheming has ended; now it’s time to act.

Second, the action is good. Leckie doesn’t wow with her descriptive battle sequences, but she earns points for novelty and originality. What follows is a fairly unique space battle marred only by the fact that the Presger gun used by our intrepid hero is sort of a cop-out. Regardless, if you put that out of your mind, what you’re left with is actual awesome-sauce.

Third, the majority of mysteries from the first two books are unpacked and resolved in a somewhat fulfilling way. Not every question has been answered by the end, but that’s okay. A few loose strands only serve to tantalize (and not disappoint) as the reader must employ their imagination to consider what might have happened next.

My favorite part of the book was actually a secondary character who appears rather late in the narrative timeline: the Presger Translator. This alien character is so delightfully weird that she steals every scene she’s in. I could (and eagerly would) read an entire stand-alone tale just with this one character. More, please.

Lease favorite part of the book? As I mentioned earlier, the special Presger gun our protagonists has been trucking around throughout the series feels cheap and overpowered in the end. But hey, that’s sort of the point, so maybe that’s a silly thing to be upset about.

Ultimately, Ann Leckie ends the Imperial Radch series with the same sort of excitement and narrative mastery that propelled Ancillary Justice to the top of the charts. She regains her stride, after (in my opinion at least) a slight stumble in Ancillary Sword, to finish strong. Ancillary Mercy delivered a compelling story full of action and emotional complexity that I consumed in a single sitting.

About Anthony Vicino (12 Articles)
Anthony Vicino has erected a word-fortress in the cyber-slum over at OneLazyRobotBlog.com where he writes about anything and everything SFF related. Stop over and see what he's scribbling on the wall.

17 Comments on ANCILLARY MERCY is an Emotionally Complex, Compelling Conclusion to Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy

  1. Roger Avedon // February 18, 2016 at 2:12 pm //

    [SPOILERS]

    Um, Anthony, can you explain what resolution, of any sort, Leckie gives in (this) book three to the grand narrative questions she raises in book one of her trilogy?

    Human civilization has been in thrall for millennia to an immortal despot that has thousands of interconnected clone bodies, and now the clone network has fractured into conflicting sub-networks largely because of interactions with an inscrutable and vastly technologically superior alien race.

    So, after introducing a protagonist that is uniquely positioned to influence and perhaps overcome this precarious situation, the trilogy concludes with the protagonist retiring to a backwater system on the far frontier of the galactic empire, in order to build a utopian society under the benign patronage of the aliens.

    It’s like Luke going back to Tatooine to get the Sand People to live in harmony with the rest of the moisture farmers, or Frodo giving The Ring back to Gollum and returning to the Shire to rehabilitate the family reputation.

    How is this “narrative mastery” in any meaningful sense?

    Science Fiction as an art form is fundamentally about asking What If questions, and speculating on answers. The best science fiction combines asking questions no one else has thought to ask, or has as yet been able to articulate, with speculation that compels reflection about the very nature of human existence.

    Leckie succeeded in launching herself into the stratosphere of science fiction askers: How does the character of human civilization change when a dictator can clone herself into her own omnipotent and omnipresent bureaucracy? What happens if a network of cloned despots fails to maintain synchronization of its goals across nodes? Who has the ability to intervene, or even to understand such a conflict?

    And then…nothing.

    • You make some really good points, Roger. And it’s true that you’re likely to be disappointed with this closing chapter to the series if you are expecting firm conclusions and resolutions in respect to the ‘grand narrative questions’ raised in Justice.

      Do we know how the galactic conflict between Anaanders will play out? No.

      And I think that’s okay, because, from my perspective, the narrative Leckie aimed to deliver wasn’t so much about how an individual goes about overthrowing an empire, but rather, to recognize that such a task is only possible when viewed through the lens of the individual.

      Could Breq end Anaander’s reign by herself? Unlikely. It’s too much to ask of an individual. The success of such a rebellion would hinge entirely on the actions and ‘stories’ of thousands of individuals spread all across Radch space.

      The frustration comes, I think, because we don’t get to see those other stories play out. We’re left following only Breq, and sure, after reading Justice it’s easy to think “This is the chosen hero who will change everything.” But Leckie does something much subtler, I feel, by highlighting this character who is no doubt very unique in many respects, but ultimately not as ‘important’ as we were originally led to believe.

      Is this going to turn off a lot of readers? Absolutely. Because as it turns out, this isn’t the story of a single person overthrowing a galactic empire, it’s the story of an individual–who used to be part of something so much more–trying to regain a portion of what she lost. And that, I think, is where the narrative mastery comes from. Leckie subverts our expectations and delivers something completely unexpected, but no less meaningful.

      Then again, there is no right or wrong answer. Only opinions. I personally liked Mercy, but I can see how others will be left unsatisfied. Thanks for joining the conversation, Roger!

  2. Gerry M. Allen // February 18, 2016 at 3:10 pm //

    I must agree with Mr. Avedon. While Ancillary Justice just vibrated with ideas and imagination, the follow-ups read like half-planned, deadline-driven scrambling. For me, the number of hanging plot threads and unresolved character arcs did not in any way fulfill the promise of the first book. Too bad.

  3. Mark Mitzer // February 18, 2016 at 6:34 pm //

    Anthony,

    I appreciate you having the courage to call out Sword for what it was: a genuinely awful book. That seems to attract extremely hostile responses from Leckie’s passionate fan base, and those sharing honest critiques about her writing now have to weigh whether or not it’s worth being put on a blacklist for doing so.

    On the other hand, while it’s better than the horrid Sword, I really can’t see how Mercy rose to the quality you described. While I’d agree that the Presger translator was the most interesting character in the book (along with the predecessor in Sword, for that matter), the translator is a vessel for multiple deus ex machina resolutions that Leckie uses to get out of sloppy writing. In fact, the point where I realized Mercy wasn’t going to get anywhere close to what she came up with in Justice was when the murder of the translator in Sword was brushed off with a shrug.

    We do finally get what feels like an afterthought retcon as to why that particular system is so important to waste two books on, but then again, Leckie does nothing to set this up and it’s massively flimsy. There are any number of worldbuilding holes that require massive suspension of disbelief (I mean, Breq’s Anaander must be perfectly fine with her actions, right?) but you don’t seem to address these flaws in your review.

    It’s a better novel than Sword, but that’s not saying much. How this deserves a 5 star rating is beyond me.

  4. Obviously, a lot of people really loved this series. And that’s great. I’m always happy when people get enjoyment out of things they read.

    but man, I bounced off the first novel so hard I had to get the book out of my house. My reaction to it was that viscerally negative.

    Well, at least the series is over, and now Leckie can start on some other book that hopefully I’ll enjoy more.

    • I’ve had those types of reactions before, too. I’m curious what it was in particular that turned you off to Justice so drastically?

      • From what I recall, I found the pacing too slow, the plot hard to discern, and I didn’t care about any of the characters. What so many readers found as groundbreaking, and you described as “peculiar pronoun shenaniganry”, was for me a gimmick that existed for no other reason than to get attention. There was a lot of peer pressure to like this book. And when I found that I didn’t like it, I found I suddenly wasn’t part of so many SFF community conversations, that many of these conversations were welcoming only to the Leckie fanbase. It was complicated for me. And I guess, if you want to call this book a Learning Experience for the SFF Community, then by all means it succeeded.

        If I remember correctly, my closing line in my review was along the lines of “if this book had been written with only male pronouns, would it have gotten the same reaction?”

        sorry for the ramble.

        • No, no…thank you for the ramble. I appreciate your insight. This has definitely been a contentious series since the beginning. I think talking about why it’s affected people in such ways (especially in respect to the community acceptance aspects) can be beneficial for future conversations about other books!

  5. I really liked Sword, and it sent me right back to reread Justice. Mercy was fun but didn’t excite me as much. This is a classic trilogy and I’ll certainly read all three again; perhaps my opinion will change.

    • It’s always interesting to hear why a book worked for one person and not the next. I’m curious what it was in particular you liked so much about Sword and what it was about Mercy that didn’t quite excite you?

      • It has been a while and I remember my responses to the two books better than I remember what I was reacting to. I don’t think I was as invested in the imperial civil war plot as many readers. The big battle scene with the weapon in Mercy was clever enough, and the Translator was fairly amusing, but I guess I was less interested in those things than in the characters and in the local intervention in Sword. That’s pretty vague, perhaps I shouldn’t have commented since the books are no longer fresh in my memory. I do remember vividly getting fired up halfway through Sword and going out to buy a copy of Justice, having read a library copy the first time.

  6. I agree with Vicino. It’s not often we get a novel that opens up big debates like this. And its most often the ones that go outside the norm and circumvent expectations, and I think authors should be encouraged to do so. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses, depends on the reader.

  7. Loved the series. I was a bit disappointed in the second book, but book three retroactively improved it.

    SPOILER ALERT!

    I think it was clear that Breq had turned the tide by “releasing” the AIs. Great finish I didn’t see coming.

  8. My post above should say spoiler! I guess I inadvertantly used html code that hid it. Editors, please mark it a big time spoiler!

  9. Harry Blanchard // February 19, 2016 at 11:26 pm //

    I agree except for one thing: I didn’t feel that the Presger gun was a cheap trick or cop-out. It was referenced in the earlier books, so it’s not a deus ex machina, and what it liked about it (along with the translator) was its teasing about all the other facets of this universe which don’t form a central part of the Ancillary series of books, like all those fascinating alien cultures that only receive passing references. Perhaps Leckie will re-visit this universe some time later.

  10. I wouldn’t give it 5 stars, but I had the same feeling over the three books: Justice was very fresh and original, but I thought did suffer a little from first-novel gaffes, Sword I was underwhelmed by, but Mercy I liked a great deal. I get that Leckie could have gone one of two ways: the thoughtful, character-focussed, small-scaled (on a galactic level) approach that she took, or all-guns-blazing galactic civil war, and that if you were hoping for the latter, you would have been disappointed. I liked the way she did choose though: ultimately, there was too much going on at the local level to successfully go large scale in just one novel, and it had some interesting things to say on identity, responsibility and culture.

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