Ann Leckie brings her groundbreaking Imperial Radch Trilogy to an explosive conclusion in Ancillary Mercy. First Ancillary Justice (2014) blew my mind, while Ancillary Sword (2014) underwhelmed. Mercy falls somewhere in between, remedying some of the faults of Sword, while repeating others. On balance, the book succeeds in tying up all the lose ends in the surprising finale to this space opera epic.
(Note: There are no major spoilers in this review for Mercy, but it is impossible to discuss the sequel without revealing significant events from Sword and Justice.)
All three books share the same narrator. Breq was once the Justice of Toren, a 2,000-year-old spaceship governed by an artificial intelligence (AI) system. That AI controlled both the ship and its crew of ancillaries, the bodies of captured soldiers whose minds have been erased. The Justice of Toren and all but one of its ancillaries were destroyed by Anaander Mianaai, the emperor of the Radch Empire. The AI lives on as Breq in the body of the last ancillary.
The Radchaii consider gender irrelevant, and all humans are referred to as “she.” After three books, I still don’t know the gender of Breq or any of the other major characters. I also long since stopped thinking about it. This is a major achievement on Leckie’s part.
One of the weaknesses of Sword was that Breq was a little too perfect. She embodies 21st Century post-colonial liberal values and never faces a serious moral challenge. And her opponents are constantly confounded by her efficient and effective machinations, which topple a plantation society in short order. Breq’s moral perfection continues here, but she at least now requires help from allies to battle oppression.
One of those allies is Zeiat the translator, a hybrid being bred to facilitate communication between humans and the Presger. Leckie does a great job of making her aliens really alien. Although Zeiat appears human, her physiology and mental processing are completely incomprehensible to the book’s human characters—as well as its readers. This is both a strength and weakness, for the Pressger and the other alien species were too unknowable for me to really understand how they fit into this universe.
There are a couple of motifs that sound throughout the trilogy that warrant special mention. The first is music. Breq is a great music lover who constantly hums one of the tunes she’s collected from across the galaxy over millennia. As Justice of Toren, she had used her ancillaries to sing complex harmonies, something that put off her human officers. This love of music presages the AI’s transition to something more human than those who built her. Music also transcends culture, which gives Breq the non-Radchaii ability to empathize—and ally—with the Empire’s various conquered peoples.
The second motif is tea. For Radchaii, tea symbolizes civilization. Both Sword and Mercy take place on Athoek, a colony where the natives harvest tea and their conquerors reap the profits. This echoes the real-world British Empire in which tea was (and is) a mark of civilization—despite the fact that tea originates in China and later India, lands to which Britain brought “civilization.” As in the reality, tea presents a conundrum in Leckie’s world: tea comes from lands supposedly civilized by more civilized cultures that consider tea the height of civilization.
Taken as a whole, the Imperial Radch Trilogy is a refreshing new take on the space opera genre. As a zombie soldier with the brain of a spaceship, Breq is less interesting than she might be, but there is quite a bit of fun in watching her plots unfold. And Leckie’s vision of a gender-less future illustrates science fiction’s ability to shape worlds free of the inequities of ours, though not without their own conflicts. Breq’s vendetta against Anaander Mianaai offers surprises up to the very end as Ancillary Mercy concludes this epic saga.