Note: There will necessarily be spoilers for Book One and Book Two in this series, but none for this book.
This is Book Three of a series which began with Ancillary Justice, a book that won just about every big award for science fiction and fantasy in 2013, including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the BSFA Award (presented by the British Science Fiction Association), the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Locus Award.
In this future galaxy, gender is maybe a matter of choice, or maybe of convenience; it’s unclear. We don’t know what gender anyone is, but everyone is universally designated as “she.” At the very least, this practice challenges our ideas about gender identity and roles, forcing us to rethink our assumptions and prejudices.
In addition, in this universe there are a number of beings who are massive entities with hive-minds that reside in multiple bodies at once. This is true of the Lord of the Radch Empire, a being who goes by the name of Anaander Mianaai. It was also once true of the main protagonist Breq, who used to be an “ancillary” or segment of the Justice of Toren, a massive starship that had served for some two thousand years. The Justice of Toren was destroyed by Anaander Mianaai, with only Breq escaping. Because Breq occupies just one body now, Breq can pass for human. In all the years that have passed, it is clear that Breq became much wiser, even as Anaander, alive for at least a thousand years more, had become more insane.
In Book One, we learned that the Lord of the Radch is at war with “herself” over the destruction of an entire solar system some thousand years previously. The Lord has now divided into two factions, one good and one evil. [What a wonderful metaphor as well as a clever complication for a hive-minded creature.] It is of course pretty difficult to figure out which self is which, and to support either one is treason, as far as the other is concerned. This puts citizens of the Radch in a very difficult position. Occasionally it is possible for them to infer which is which from the relative justice of the act being ordered by the Lord. When Breq was still part of the Justice of Toren, Anaander Mianaai ordered Breq to shoot her beloved superior – Lieutenant Awn – in the head. Awn had discovered the split in Anaander Mianaai, and refused to obey the orders of this Anaander because she concluded she was the evil one. Breq had no choice; Awn would die in any event, and Breq thought she would die as well. Indeed, the Lord then destroyed the Justice of Toren; it was an accident that Breq escaped. Breq loved Awn, and never recovered from what she had to do.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq was sent to Athoek Station as Captain of the starship Mercy of Kalr. This assignment dovetailed with Breq’s own needs, because she wanted to find the sister of the late Lieutenant Awn, and offer her support. But the sister, Basnaaid, wanted nothing to do with Breq. While at the station, however, there was plenty to keep Breq busy: she becomes involved with the station’s management and with the vicious undercurrent of race and class conflict that officially don’t exist [just like in the U.S.].
Breq – no doubt because of her own past as a former ancillary – was outraged at the way the underclass was treated by those who thought they are better; once again, the notion of “justice” becomes a critical point for Breq.
In Ancillary Mercy, Breq is still trying to juggle political currents on Athoek Station with her entirely human – not ancillary – crew, including Seivarden – a former addict who was rescued and rehabilitated by Breq, and is now one of Breq’s most trusted lieutenants. But there is more to worry about on Athoek than local politics and Seivarden’s continuing adjustment.
First, there is the fact that the Station AI, inspired by Breq’s assumption of self-agency, also starts acting on her own. In addition, two mysterious persons show up who upset the balance of the station if not the universe. One identifies herself right away – she is a new Translator from the Presger race, a mysterious and technologically superior race that can pretty much wipe out everyone else if it so chooses. The other arrival is a mystery at first, but definitely has something to do with universal politics and the conflicts within and among the being who is Anaander Mianaai. At least one iteration of Anaander is apparently outraged that Breq survived, and, that this mere ancillary has been so successful both at governing and at winning the loyalty of those who serve her.
As for how it all works out, without spoiling at all, I think it’s useful to quote from the end of the book. The author has her main protagonist observe:
“Entertainments nearly always end with triumph or disaster – happiness achieved, or total, tragic defeat precluding any hope of it. But there is always more after the ending – always the next morning and the next, always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other. Until the one true ending that none of us can escape. But even that ending is only a small one, large as it looms for us. There is still the next morning for everyone else. For the vast majority of the rest of the universe, that ending might as well not ever have happened. Every ending is an arbitrary one. Every ending is, from another angle, not really an ending.”
What a brilliant way to end a story that transpires over millennia!
Discussion: I appreciated the first book for its distinctive innovativeness, but I struggled with all of the “alien concepts.” In the subsequent books, the “heavy lifting” of the world building has already been done, and the author can just get on with the story; the second and third books are easier to read. Nevertheless, I was still often confused over the identities and factions of the players, and even over the role of tea and tea sets. I believe this was my own failing, however, and did not detract from my appreciation of the remarkable creativity and ground-breaking nature of these books.
Evaluation: Science fiction is by its very nature a subversive genre, but Leckie carries it further than most, in my opinion, with some notable exceptions, like the work of China Miéville. First she eliminates our preconceived notions about gender by totally taking it off the table. Second, she challenges our assumptions about what qualifies someone as a “person.” Obviously history is full of examples – especially in warfare – of identifying enemies as “less than human” in order to facilitate killing those “others.” But Leckie hammers this home with her emphasis on choice of words alone that designate if someone should be treated as a “person” or not. In so doing, she further highlights the importance of language in structuring perceptions. Further, she doesn’t do this through narration, but through the “real-time” action as it unfolds. Readers must work to sift through the implications and insinuations.
This third book is definitely not a standalone, and was for me a bit slower than the other books, at least in the beginning. Moreover, these are not “light” books to read. But the ideas presented in the books – about universal justice, mercy and the worth of all beings, and about how we can make a difference even in a universe that is vast and timeless, are very much worth contemplating. For fans of science fiction, I think this series is a must-read!
Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2015