The first two books in the “Imperial Radch” trilogy seemed pretty inconsistent
to me. Ancillary Justice was
Ancillary Sword failed to reach that
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.