Review: Ancillary Mercy
The first two books in the “Imperial Radch” trilogy seemed pretty inconsistent to me. Ancillary Justice was great, but Ancillary Sword failed to reach that standard. That’s why my hopes were high when I opened Ancillary Mercy; it’s also why my expectations were not.
One of my complaints about Sword was its lack of character development. It left behind the most interesting relationships from Justice, and it didn’t do too much with the new people it introduced. Ancillary Mercy is much more successful in both regards. The new characters are compelling, and their relevance to the narrative is immediately obvious. They aren’t explored in great depth, but this treatment is justified by the particulars of the situation. They feel appropriately mysterious (to the point of being intimidating) rather than disappointingly shallow (like the people introduced by the prior installment).
Ancillary Mercy also enriches a bunch of the themes that felt muted by Ancillary Sword. The protagonist Breq shows physical affection for the first time, and the ensuing awkwardness provides subtext on gender, identity, and authority. Lieutenant Seivarden, Breq’s second-in-command, struggles with some personal truths and shows real development as a result. Relationships between artificial intelligences are explored and made more weird, both through Breq’s apparent infatuation with a ship and through that ship’s bizarre tendency to communicate through humans.
The book includes an examination of Breq’s ability/willingness to read emotions. That narrative device was pretty frustrating to me in Sword, so it was encouraging to learn that it wasn’t just lazy storytelling. Leckie introduced it to set up conflict in this book. Unfortunately, the pay-off was pretty minimal, and to my mind, not enough to justify the distraction.
Leckie doles out important plot points at a steady rate. She does that throughout the series, though; pacing is not one of Ancillary Sword’s shortcomings. It’s just that unlike in Sword (which is largely focused on local politics), the twists and turns feel significant here. And without giving anything away, the conclusion is satisfying. It strikes a good balance between tying up every loose end (and feeling stilted as a result) and leaving too much unsaid. It’s pretty clever, too.
So the big question is, does Ancillary Mercy justify Ancillary Sword? Probably not. To be sure, the second book did help add weight to the setting, which might otherwise have felt like an arbitrary system among many in the Radch empire. But the characters from Sword were largely ignored and mostly served only as hostages. I’m still feeling pretty satisfied with the trilogy, overall. I’d recommend it to sci-fi fans, and for all my whining, I wouldn’t even suggest skipping Sword. While Leckie’s writing definitely becomes less overtly challenging over the course of the series, the subtlety it reaches makes it worth your time.