A Letdown as Grand as Its Beginnings – A Review of Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

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As a rule, I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews. For the most part, I tend to see them as a waste of time: I would more greatly enjoy writing about something I liked, and my readership (such as it is) would be better served reading something that recommends instead of condemns. However, ever since I started this blog I’ve tried to train myself to write about almost everything I read, if only for the sake of honesty; I can’t possibly enjoy everything I read, right? Also, there are some books that are just so vile that I feel it is a public service to tell the world jus how bad they are. Such reviews, however, are rare, as I tend to be cautious about how much vitriol I spill onto the Internet. There is enough of it out there, after all, and I tend to reserve it for books that really, really deserve it.

But there are times when the writing of negative reviews becomes especially burdensome, and that is particularly true of books that I thoroughly enjoyed initially, only to feel a profound sense of disappointment upon arriving at the end. This is worse if the book is the concluding volume of a series: one may reasonably expect the middle books in a series to be of slightly lesser or variable quality than the first and last books, but one generally expects the last book to be just as good, if not better than, the first. And when that book just doesn’t quite make it there, when it closes what would otherwise have been a wonderful story in a way that is less than satisfying, then I wonder what the point was in reading all the way to the end, only to have my memories of the story as a whole tainted by a disappointing conclusion.

That is, unfortunately, how I feel about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, the final volume in her Imperial Radch series that began with the award-winning Ancillary Justice, and continued in the second volume, Ancillary Sword.

Ancillary Mercy continues a few days after the concluding events of Ancillary Sword. Breq must now deal with the consequences of her actions on Athoek Station, while at the same time considering what to do with what lies beyond the Ghost Gate, and the war that has sparked all across the Radchaai Empire as Anaander Mianaai battles against herself for control of Radch space. Breq must also consider the Presger, a powerful and mysterious alien race who were intent on destroying all of humanity until a treaty with the Radch put a stop to that—a treaty that might no longer hold, ever since the Presger ambassador to Athoek Station, Translator Dlique, was killed during key events in the last novel.

As all of these events come to a head, Breq comes up with a plan: an imperfect and dangerous plan, but it is all she has. That plan may spell the end of Athoek, Athoek Station, her crew, her ship, and herself—or it may mean vast, sweeping change across the Empire.

Anyone who has read the first book knows just how immense the world of the series is. The image of the Radchaai Empire created in Ancillary Justice is of a sprawling, intergalactic territory encompassing tens of thousands of worlds, peoples, and cultures—many of which came into the Radch unwillingly. Breq, once the warship Justice of Toren, had a hand in that expansion, and reiterates it in Ancillary Mercy:

”… Do you know how many republics the Radch has ground to nothing?”

“Who are you talking to?” I asked. “Of course I do. I also know how many monarchies, autarchies, theocracies, stratocracies, and various other -archies and -ocracies the Radch has ground to nothing. …”

This vastness is emphasised by the fact that the ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, does not exist in one body, but in several: splitting herself into many bodies so that she can personally control her territory, often out of palaces that serve as capitals for large chunks of the empire. Truly, it must be a vast empire indeed, if the ruler of that empire thinks cloning herself is a necessary tool for governing it.

However, that vision of a vast, sprawling empire is suddenly compressed in the second book Ancillary Sword, with the planet Athoek and its associated Station acting as a metaphor for the kinds of dramas and issues that occur regularly all across the Radch. If the beauty of the world in the first book was that sense of breathless immensity, then the beauty of the second book was in its ability to capture the quintessence of that immensity in a small handful of settings, condensing them into a tightly-controlled plot. This “smallness” of setting made sense, given the themes of racism, classism, and imperialism that Ancillary Sword set out to tackle: against a grander backdrop, those important themes would lose their clarity and immediacy.

At the end of Ancillary Sword, readers were given good reason to expect a return to the vastness of the first book. Anaander’s secret war had stopped being quite so secret, and now that open war was tearing the Empire apart, it was reasonable to expect Breq, her crew, and Mercy of Kalr to actively participate in that war. I had visions of ship battles, political negotiations over elaborate tea sets (must never forget those tea sets), and a constant guessing game of whose loyalties lay where as Breq tried to not only extract vengeance for what was done to her in the first book, but to make the Radch a better place for everyone—all while hoping the Presger didn’t decide to just snuff humanity out entirely.

But that is not what happens. To be sure, there are tea sets, political manoeuvrings, and guessing games aplenty in Ancillary Mercy, but instead of returning to the grand vision of the first book, Leckie decides to remain in the settings of Ancillary Sword, while at the same time attempting to tell a grander tale than those settings can stage to satisfaction. Simply put, she overextends the metaphor used in the second novel: Athoek and Athoek Station acting as a microcosmic representation of the vastness of the Radch. This means that the events in Ancillary Mercy feel too small, and have no greater consequences beyond the space in which they are enacted.

That sense of smallness has repercussions on the ending of the series. Ancillary Mercy does not give a sense of satisfying closure for the series as a whole, which opened with such grand scope in Ancillary Justice. The world and overarching plot Leckie created and laid out in the first two books is simply too grand to end on a whimper, and yet that is precisely what happens. Even worse, this unsatisfactory ending casts a shadow on the first two books: no matter how wonderful Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword might be, all of that will no longer matter in light of the ending given in Ancillary Mercy. The only thing that could possibly save this series is if Leckie chooses to amend the “trilogy” status of the series and write a few more books that satisfactorily wrap everything up (in particular, the war between the Anaanders), but since that does not seem to be forthcoming, readers will just have to remain disappointed.

It is not, however, all gloom-and-doom for this novel. The established characters are still a joy to read, and Breq, as expected, is a standout. I have always enjoyed reading about how angry Breq is, and how she channels that anger into various activities and ideas that are to the benefit of all those around her. Everything in Ancillary Sword is pretty much the result of Breq being angry about something, and then doing something about what makes her angry: a pattern that continues in Ancillary Mercy. However, there are times when she just lets her anger rip, to no apparent end except that it makes her feel better, and those moments are quite entertaining—as this excerpt shows:

”Graciously thanking Fleet Captain Uemi for her compliments,” I replied, “I am not currently concerned with any system but Athoek. I am sending local intelligence, and my own official reports, with many thanks for the fleet captain’s offer to pass them on to the appropriate authorities.” And bundled that up with a week’s worth of every scrap of official news I could find, including the results of seventy-five regional downwell radish-growing competitions that flagged as worthy of special attention. And a month’s worth of my own routine reports and status records, dozens of them, every single line of every single one of them filled out with exactly the same two words: Fuck off.

While Breq remains the standout she has always been since the first book and doesn’t appear to suffer for the aforementioned issues regarding plot, the other, established characters aren’t quite so lucky. Seivarden is probably the only character who lucked-out in the development department: Ancillary Mercy explores the greater themes of classism and racism that have been associated with her character since Ancillary Justice, but there’s also a touchingly personal angle to her story arc that I found very enjoyable to read about. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Tisarwat, whose search for identity and purpose, begun in Ancillary Sword, continues in this novel, and could have developed into something far more interesting and complex had the plot gone on to bigger, grander things. The same goes for Station and Mercy of Kalr: had the story been allowed to go on to bigger, grander things, the consequences of their actions in this novel could have found greater meaning in the higher stakes of a Radchaai civil war.

Overall, Ancillary Mercy is something of a disappointment: a conclusion that reads more like a whimper than the bang many readers were expecting. The grander stakes suggested and implied throughout the first two books are not addressed satisfactorily in Ancillary Mercy, and it is sad that the Imperial Radch series must end the way it does in this novel. This has some unfortunate effects, particularly on the characters. Though they remain immensely readable and entertaining (especially Breq), their growth potential is stifled and hampered by the plot. Unless Leckie intends to continue the series beyond “trilogy” status, readers will have to content themselves with what Ancillary Mercy offers—and it is, unfortunately, a most unsatisfactory offering indeed.

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