It's been some months now since I read "Ancillary Mercy". I held back from reviewing it, not because it wasn't good but because what made it good was so pervasive, so delicate and so intricately linked to the two preceding books, whose meaning it subtly modifies, that I didn't know where to start.
I'm writing this review now so that I can capture how it felt to read, "Ancillary Justice" and finish the Imperial Radch trilogy before I read Ann Leckie's latest book, "Provenance" which set in the same universe but with a very different focus.
Firstly, I was left with a real sense of progression and completeness that I always hope for in a trilogy but rarely get. This completeness comes not from the unravelling of a mystery or from an exponential growth of world-building but from somewhere much more interesting, the emotional growth of the main character.
There aren't many science fiction books I can make that kind of statement about, even fewer when the main character is an AI (although Joel Shepherd's last three books in the Cassandra Kresnove series also do this well).
The first book, "Ancillary Justice", Breq, an AI in a human body who was formerly the warship Justice of Toren, was alone, recovering from crippling betrayal and seeking vengeance. Even then, she seemed to me to be a better person than many of the humans she encountered.
In "Ancillary Sword", Breq has a command of a ship, an imperial mission and an opportunity to repay a debt of honour to the family of one Justice of Toren's officers. In that book, Breq has moved beyond simple vengeance to the consideration of just use of power and the nature of personhood. She is building relationships, administering justice and recreating herself into a person with a very different view of life than the one Justice of Toren had lived within.
What I liked most about "Ancillary Mercy" is that Breq not only completes the building of her new identity but, in doing so, she changes many of the people and AIs around her. Breq has replaced a hunger for revenge with something much more important, the need and ability to love and be loved. She wins the love and loyalty of her human crew. She prompts other Ships and Station AIs to consider their own personhood and desires and she brokers a the opportunity for a kind of peace.
I'm aware that this is not necessarily the explosive ending some people were looking for. I've seen the reviews that complain that too much time in this book is spent making tea.
Tea, in Breq's world, is an archetype of civilization. It is about thought, courtesy, respect, discipline, hospitality and refusal to have one's will drowned in the torrent of events. It is about making choices and exercising will. Tea is Breq's alternative to weapons of mass destruction and, in my view, shows that she has transformed herself from an intelligent military asset of the Empire into a person seeking freedom for herself and others.
If you don't find those ideas interesting, then this probably isn't the book for you.
There is, of course, more to the book than tea. There is brinkmanship, warfare, encounters with the disturbingly alien and clashes between cultures and classes that are as old as time. There is perfectly paced storytelling, that holds you in suspense but never tempts you to skip ahead and most of all there are many, many believable characters who make the story rich and credible.
I'm sure the Imperial Radch trilogy will become one of the classics of science fiction. I know I will read all of it again. But not until I've read "Provence" and anything else new that Ann Lecke publishes.
Ajoha Andoh's narration of all three books is perfect. Listen to the SoundCloud extract below to hear for yourself.
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