book reviews by Althea

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie ***

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Ancillary Mercy
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, it looks like I’m in the minority here with my 3-star review. I guess that’s going to take some justifying, but I truly feel that this is objectively not as good a book as the first two in the series.

Let me first say that I absolutely loved ‘Ancillary Justice.’ (… ) It fully deserved all the awards it received. The book was strikingly original, offering an alien view of gender identity – or, rather, lack of gender identity – in a social context that wholly made sense, positing individual beings incorporating many different bodies. In conjunction with that concept it also offered up a grand and sweeping science fiction story, told through an interesting and effective narrative structure.

The followup, ‘Ancillary Sword,’ (… ) was still very good, although in retrospect I feel that some of my enthusiasm for it may have ‘carried over’ from the first one. Here, Leckie’s canvas shrinks significantly, as Breq finds herself on Athoek Station and involved with a fight for justice for the oppressed citizens of the Undergarden. (I have to admit that after reading both closely in time, some details of this book feel very similar in memory to those of Catherine Asaro’s ‘Undercity.’ (…) ) It’s a very good book, and very enjoyable, but it’s also a much less risk-taking, more conventional, simpler story.

In ‘Ancillary Mercy,’ we’re still on Athoek Station. And well, we stay there. Some stuff happens, but honestly, the book is lacking any kind of narrative sweep that captures tension or pulls the reader forward. What ends up being the grand ‘point’ of the book (view spoiler) is introduced abruptly, at the end of the book, literally as a spur-of-the-moment idea. Before we get there, we feel like we’re just bumbling around for a while.

Anaander Mianaai, the evil overlord, is still at war with herself, a civil conflict that threatens the Radch empire. However, when she finally shows up, it’s only with one body. We also ‘meet’ a fascinating ‘ghost ship’ – but we also meet only one of its ancillaries. This means that in a world with these fascinating multi-bodied identities, we actually don’t have any of them in play in the story. Everyone is just one body. Why create this interesting (if difficult-to-write) scenario, that was handled so very well in the first book, and then just drop it? This also happens with the gender thing. The other books made it very, very clear that although the Radch citizens are both male and female, they only have one gender pronoun, translated here as ‘she’ by default. This story doesn’t involve that at all. If you hadn’t read the previous books, you’d just assume that all the characters are women, since it doesn’t come into play in any interesting way.

Well, there is one character, introduced previously, Seivarden, who is clearly physically male. However, where previously Seivarden was arrogant, angsty and tormented in a very attractive way, here ‘she’ just turns whiny, arrogant and pathetic. An absurd amount of page time is devoted to her conflict with her lover, Ekalu. An ‘absurd amount’ because it’s neither dramatically interesting nor germane to the narrative. Rather, it feels shoehorned in, in order to make a point. Basically, Seivarden offers Ekalu a backhanded ‘compliment’ by telling her she’s “not like” other members of her considered-to-be-lower-class ethnic group. Ekalu, understandably, is offended and tells Seivarden to screw off. Seivarden doesn’t understand what she did wrong. But instead of getting Seivarden to understand WHY what she said was offensive, the book hammers it in repeatedly that it doesn’t even matter IF what she said was offensive (although, yes, it was), the important point (according to the author) is that Ekalu was offended, and that’s all that matters. I don’t personally agree that emotions should be elevated over logic, but this is just such an of-the-moment argument that it really brought the story out of the future/alien society realm and into a place of contemporary grandstanding.

Throughout the story, I felt that the intrigue and action scenes kept taking a back seat to minor stuff like this. Even when we did get into the ‘big’ stuff involving ships and AI and treachery… well, in the previous books I’d compared Leckie’s settings to Iain Banks. I suppose, considering the events of this book, you could almost even view this scenario as a super-prequel to the scenario described in his ‘Culture’ novels. But instead of wild enthusiasm, reading this, I just found myself getting sad that Banks has passed away. Maybe it was just my mood at the time.

There were some things about the book that I continue to like. I love the Radchaai obsession with tea and tea sets. It’s a wonderful social quirk. I like Breq’s almost-subconscious personal quirk of constantly singing to herself. The political drama was interesting, particularly the discussion of a ‘hands-off’ policy vs. a ‘forceful response’ to dealing with protests on the part of authority.

In this book, we also have a new Presger translator. I absolutely love the bizarreness of the translators – it completely makes sense that beings created by an incomprehensible alien species in an attempt to be more similar to the species they’re designed to communicate with would be peculiar, like this. However, I do have to admit that after a while, it begins to feel like Translator Zeiat’s quirkiness begins to be played just for laughs. I don’t feel that her presence at the end of the book was fully successful – it makes a scene that in many ways seems like it should be the grand climax of all three novels feel almost… flippant. (The previously mentioned spur-of-the-moment-idea thing also contributes to this.) The climax also feels like a bit of a letdown in that it’s just a theme and concept (view spoiler) that’s been done so very many times before in science fiction. This isn’t a terrible iteration of the idea, but I wanted (and expected) something more.

Three stars for the good parts, but I can’t deny that I left this one feeling disappointed.

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