Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review - Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Short review: A portion of Anaander Mianaai comes looking for Breq to exact revenge, but Breq still has the Presger gun, and more importantly, she has a new Presger translator.

Anaander has come
Breq asks the Presger if she
Is significant

Full review: Ancillary Mercy is the third and final book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series featuring Breq as a former star ship A.I. who has been reduced to a single body, made a citizen of the Radch by one faction of the divided emperor Anaander Mianaai, and promoted to fleet captain in command of her own star ship, which comes complete with its own A.I. As a conclusion to the series, Ancillary Mercy is masterful, offering the reader a satisfying conclusion to many of the threads that were started in Ancillary Justice, including the long-awaited confrontation between Breq and the "other" Mianaai, as well as highlighting issues that in retrospect were present all along, but likely hidden by one's assumptions. But the book also leaves several points open, giving the Leckie's fictional universe a more expansive feel, and leaving room for other stories to inhabit its reaches.

The book opens with tea, in a scene that is about as domestic as the series gets, setting the tone for what is "normal" in the world of the Radch. But normal doesn't last long in Breq's world, and the book turns almost immediately to one of the central questions posed: What, exactly, is Mercy of Kalr, and by extension, what is Breq? Obviously Mercy of Kalr is a star ship A.I., but the deeper question is is she a what, or is she a who. After all, almost everyone who meets Breq treats her as a person (although some switch to seeing her as a thing when they find out she used to be Justice of Toren), but if Breq is a person, why isn't Kalr a person? Why does Kalr need a captain to be in charge of her? And these are exactly the questions Breq discusses with Kalr, highlighted in the opening chapter of the book, and which reverberate through the rest of the story.

In broad outlines, the plot of the novel is fairly straightforward: As the news of the split between the two factions of Anaander Mianaai becomes more widely known, those who support the Mianaai who doesn't like Breq discover that she was formerly an ancillary and take steps against her, most notably Eminence Ifian the head priest of Amaat, who takes all of his priesthood on strike, disrupting the lives of almost every individual on Athoek Station. This very Radchaai form of attack is met with a very Radchaai response as the citizens of the station form a protest line outside the Amaat Temple. While this would normally be an acceptable way to engage in a dispute, many in the line are members of the disfavored ethnic groups Ychana and Valskaayans, and the authorities make moves to crack down on them, rather than merely letting the line be as would be proper. In this sequence, Leckie shows how Radch society operates under normal conditions when conflicts arise, but also illustrates quite clearly that despite their pretensions to the contrary, Radch society is an inherently unequal society, in which the disfavored are oppressed despite the fact that they are technically equal under the law. Further, by having Breq work to uphold the rights of the downtrodden - in effect making the Radch live up to their claimed ideals - despite the potential personal cost, Leckie once again develops Breq into a more fully realized character.

One of the interesting elements about Ancillary Mercy is how Leckie is constantly building her world and her story in both large and small ways. Alongside the larger story of the protest line and the response from some of the Radch authorities on Athoek Station, the relationship between Lieutenant Seivardan and freshly promoted Lieutentant Ekalu also shows how Radch society has always been rotten at its core. Seivarden is a character out of place in time, having been in cryosleep for an extended period of time, and is actually from the period of Radch history prior to the intervention of the alien Presger apparently sparked the split in Mianaai's personality. While Seivarden has expressed disgust with the class-based attitudes of some of the modern Radchaai, she still manages to insult Ekalu with backhanded compliments that essentially say Ekalu is better than others from her social class and background. When Ekalu justifiably takes offense at these "compliments", Seivarden is befuddled, as it does not even occur to her that what she has said could be construed as an insult. The point is quite clear: The inequality of a society is not only perpetuated by conscious actions to keep it unequal, but by the unconscious attitudes of those who don't even see that inequality is the water they are swimming in.

The connection with the Radch Empire's past is made even more explicit when an ancillary from the long-lost ship Sphene shows up, unraveling at least part of the mystery of what is beyond the ghost gate. Accompanying their arrival is a new mystery relating to a freshly uncovered cache of A.I. cores that someone had hidden on Athoek Station. The immediate presumption is that the Anaander Mianaai who dislikes Breq is responsible for placing them there, but this is merely an assumption. More interestingly, Sphene is an exile who hid after her side lost in the conflict that resulted in Anaander Mianaai taking control of the Radch to begin with, and as a result has even older ideas about society than Seivarden. Sphene, for example, finds it almost offensive that anyone from outside of the ancestral Dyson Sphere that is home to the original Radchaai would have the temerity to call themselves Radchaai. The self-exiled ship also serves as a reminder of what Breq herself was, complete with mind-wiped ancillaries who exist only as equipment who are extensions of the ship's A.I. It was at Sphene's behest that the stockpile of bodies in cryosleep Breq found in Ancillary Sword was created - Sphene needs new ancillaries, and those bodies were to provide the raw material. The fact that the bodies were technically those belonging to citizens of the Radch is of no concern to Sphene, as she doesn't actually regard them as being truly Radchaai. It is in this lack of caring that one sees the progressive dehumanization possible in the system. Whether one is a person, and therefore protected from being treated as little more than raw materials, is merely a question of definition, and those definitions can change based upon almost arbitrary and capricious factors.

The most interesting character in the volume is the new Presger translator Zeiat, who is almost incomprehensible while at the same time being the most illuminating character in the book. Her most critical scene takes place in her entrance to the story: When she arrives on Athoek Station, the Presger translator announces that they are Dlique, but upon being informed that Dlique is dead, asserts that they are instead Zeiat. This raises the question of why they thought they were Dlique to begin with, posing the intriguing possibility that they were in fact Dlique, but also Zeiat at the same time. This is, perhaps, a subtle inversion, as the reader has become familiar with a single consciousness inhabiting multiple bodies such as Justice of Toren, Sphene, or even Anaander Mianaai herself. So, one must wonder if the Presger translator might possibly be multiple minds in a single body, switching between them as the need arises and only holding out that they are one specific personality as a means of bridging the gap between Presger and Human. If so, this could be an interesting indication as to the nature of the as yet unseen Presger.

Regardless of the answer to this question, what Zeiat adds to the book is an entirely alien perspective on not just Radch society, but human society in all its forms. While Breq is able to question elements of Radch culture due to her status as someone who has been outside of normal society, Zeiat calls into question even basic assumptions made by those around her regarding things as mundane as the proper use of fish sauce. It is also interesting that Sphene, as the other "outsider" in the story, is the only character that seems to be able to establish a rapport with Zeiat, although the two proceed in such an inhuman manner that trying to figure out exactly what they are talking about, or when they begin playing a game, exactly what the rules are. Even Breq, herself formerly a star ship A.I., finds Sphene's interactions with Zeiat to be almost incomprehensible.

All of these characters exist against a backdrop that involves the Anaander Mianaai from Tstur Palace, who holds a grudge against Breq for killing her in Ancillary Justice and siding with the other faction of Anaander Mianaai. In a move that seems almost inevitable, Tstur Anaander brings an expeditionary force into Athoek with the unmistakable intent to kill Breq and gain control over Athoek for Tstur Palace. As she did for much of Ancillary Sword, Breq finds herself working from a position of weakness, because while she has befriended Athoek Station and many of her prominent citizens, and reached an uneasy truce with Sword of Atagaris, Tstur Anaander brings four powerful ships with her, while Breq can only truly count on the loyalty of Mercy of Kalr. Forced to rely upon her wits, Breq discovers, almost by accident, the true power of the Presger weapon she had been carrying since the first book in the series, but more importantly the power of taking the time to understand the wants and needs of those around her. Fundamentally, Breq not only out-thinks her foe, she does so because she is empathetic to the needs of those she is dealing with.

In the final confrontation, the secret that had been hidden in the text from the very first pages of Ancillary Justice is laid bare: The Radch language does have two pronouns, not one. All of the people in the story are referred to as she, but all of the A.I.s and ancillaries are referred to as it. Radch society does recognize the social distinctions between different pronouns, but the differences had been so subtly dealt with throughout the books that it was easy to simply overlook this. As Breq tells Zieat, there is a wholly alien, "significant" species living throughout the Radch Empire that has been relegated by Anaander's laws to the status of property. And the story makes clear that Anaander essentially views everyone but herself as a tool to be used, an attitude reflected by Sphene's view of those born outside the Radch Dyson Sphere, and extended even to people that the "good" Anaander supposedly accords the rights of citizens such as Tisarwat. It is when Breq asserts her right to be regarded as someone and not something that the story crystallizes, showing the reader the true destination that Breq had set out upon after the "bad" Anaander had manipulated her without her knowledge, forcing her to do things she did not want to do, and ultimately destroying most of her.

In the end, the story shows that those who treat those around them merely as tools to be used cannot command loyalty, even through military might, and those who don't pay attention to the flow of information will ultimately pay the price for their neglect. What gives Breq power is her attention to the network of allies around her, an effort that seems almost alien to Anaander, who is used to being a network unto herself. But because she neglects the needs of those who are not her, Anaander finds that necessary information has simply not been offered, because while she was ordering people about, she didn't think to ask for it and those she was in the habit of oppressing didn't feel the need to volunteer it. By contrast, when Breq insists that the Ychana be treated like citizens, or treats Athoek Station like an equal, she commands their loyalty, and in the process shows those who had been treated as either de facto property or de jure property that they should have a voice, and should be respected.

Ancillary Mercy is, at the same time, both an entirely unexpected and seemingly inevitable ending to Breq's story. One of the most beautiful things about the book is that Breq essentially understands her way to victory, and her victory is an egalitarian one that offers better prospects not just for herself, but for those around her as well, and rejects the choices offered to her by the Anaander factions. Breq's story is a story of inverted expectations, of the voiceless being voiced, of tea and songs, of humans acting as equipment, and of equipment finding out that it is not equipment after all. It is also absolutely beautiful and absolutely brilliant.

Previous book in the series: Ancillary Sword

2015 Locus Award Winner for Best Science Fiction Novel: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
2017 Locus Award Winner for Best Science Fiction Novel: TBD

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Science Fiction Novel

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

2016 Hugo Award Finalists
2016 Locus Award Nominees
2016 Nebula Award Nominees

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