Ancillary Mercy is the third in Ann Leckie's acclaimed Imperial Radch series, which I've voted for in the Hugos for the past two years. Leckie's debut series, to me, has always been perfectly balanced sci-fi. It's high-concept science fiction, but it's also an emotional, humorous and character-driven story. On the one hand, it's very personal -- the story of an outcast risking themselves to get revenge against the leader of the human universe because they killed someone she loved. On the other hand, it's very, very "sci-fi" -- the story of the last remaining ancillary of a battleship AI that was otherwise destroyed, and its captain murdered, by the multi-bodied leader of the human universe. That leader has grown over so many bodies that she's split and is now fighting a secret war with herself; one side wants to use the protagonist as a pawn against the other, but our protagonist wants them all gone.
Also, there's reflections on colonialism and gender theory and questions of identity and all that fun stuff. Something for everyone, really.
Unfortunately, this instalment started off a little weak. It has to take a lot of little story steps to transition from Ancillary Sword to its own main plot, which meant that it felt pretty slow. It's probably more effective if you read the books back to back and not after a year's break, but with that gap, I found myself struggling to remember who everyone was and what was going on. If I hadn't loved the previous two books, I might have given up.
But once the main plot kicks off, with Anaander Mianaai looming on the horizon, it becomes a really absorbing read.
Ann Leckie's writing remains immensely readable. Her characters have so much life to them, and her writing has a real sense of humor, even as it builds a serious sci-fi world exploring serious themes.
The first book was usually discussed as "that gender book," because of the gender-neutral race and language at the center of it. At this point, however, the gender stuff is just worldbuilding -- it still exists, but it's not really the point. We're talking about other things, like colonialism and oppression and self-determination. I've seen people criticize this book for losing that focus, creating the sense that we've got an all-female cast (as it uses "she" and "her" for everyone) rather than a gender-neutral cast. But we've been spending time in this world for two books now. Perhaps it's fitting that the book, like the protagonist herself, treats gender as Not A Big Deal, except for the times Breq meets other races and has to scramble to choose the correct gender for them in her speech. People who distinguish between male and female are the slightly confusing other here -- not bad, just culturally different -- so it makes sense that the book has long since put any sense that its gender language is unusual aside.
That said, Ancillary Mercy is still very, very focused on the idea of identity. It's just that its questions of identity are explored in ways that make sense within its own world. After considering a lot of issues of colonialism in the last book, Ann Leckie mashes the questions of gender, identity and self-determination together here by focussing mostly on AI -- whether they count as beings in their own right, whether they should be free to be their own "captains," whether they should be able to protect themselves from access codes that interfere with their own opinions, whether replacing one AI core with another counts as murder. AIs are referred to as "it" instead of "she" by default, and the novel explores the connotations of this language, and the idea that some AIs prefer to be referred to as "it," because they are different.
Because although gender isn't even a consideration in this world, the question of "Significance" is. It would be easy to misread one of the novel's big themes as "what it means to be human," but as the language issue suggests, the AI here aren't arguing that they are human. In fact, Breq is insulted by people who say "you don't seem like an ancillary," because it implies that her reality is lesser and that she's somehow transcended it. It's not "should the idea of humans be expanded to include AIs?" but "human or not, they are individuals, and they deserve autonomy."
Unfortunately, although the AI theme was hinted at from the beginning, I doubt it was the driving plot conclusion that many people were expecting. In Ancillary Justice, Breq wants to kill Anaander Mianaai. All of her. She wants to destroy her. To me, that sets up an expectation that, by the end of the trilogy, Breq will act on fulfilling this goal. Whether she succeeds or fails or changes her mind at the last moment, the possibility has to come up. Ancillary Sword was smaller in scope, set on Athoek Station and its nearby planet, but I'd assumed that Ancillary Mercy would expand to consider the bigger picture again. It never really does. Actions in the book have consequences for the rest of the universe, but we're still very focussed on the wellbeing of this station and this planet and these characters and this single incarnation of Anaander Mianaai.
Perhaps this comes from my reading too much YA and watching too much space opera, but by book three, I was expecting the protagonists to take on The Enemy with potentially world-changing consequences. They have to be at the center of the story. But most of Ancillary Mercy feels like a fringe fight, just something else happening in the vast universe. And perhaps that's the point, but it felt jarring after that initial Book One promise. I expected the book to be structured as "first we fight the extra evil Anaander Mianaai that's here, and then we take the battle to the rest of her." The novel's conclusion was really clever, with gripping action, and it has massive implications for the whole universe, but it's still relatively small, compared to the scale and severity of the Anaander Mianaai Problem. It resolves the immediate problems of the characters we know by focussing on this question of AI autonomy, but the long term consequences and stability are unclear. It's the sort of series ender that makes you go, "OK, but THEN what happens??", which might be good or bad, depending on how you read it.
Overall, Ancillary Mercy is a great read, with wonderful characters, gripping action, a great sense of humor, and a lot of interesting things to say. However, I'm not sure it lived up to all of the promise we saw in the series' first instalment. The series doesn't quite feel cohesive, which is why I don't think Ancillary Mercy will be at the top of my voting list this year.