Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
Synopsis: An AI in a human body navigates the tangled bureaucracy of administrating a space station.
Book Review: This book was devastatingly disappointing. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s first novel in this trilogy, was a masterpiece. It broke new ground in the SF genre, and tackled complex themes of vengeance, means/ends justification, and whether a person’s nature can change. The second novel, Ancillary Sword, wasn’t as good as the first, but it was a middle-book, and it did class-warfare very well. This novel has no unifying theme or idea. It seems very confused, stating that strong, central governments are bad, and then demonstrating that a loose coalition of free agents falls into anarchy and back-stabbing very quickly, and can’t be relied on to do anything. It hints for about one paragraph that Libertarian Free Markets are the solution to this. That was innovative back when Heinlein first introduced it… 50 years ago. But Ancillary Mercy doesn’t even bother to explore the idea or do ANYTHING with it, aside from that brief, one-paragraph mention.
Let me walk that back slightly – it does kinda have a theme of “enslaving sentient beings is bad.” This is very far from new ground. The very first story about robots, the one that introduced the word “robot”, had this theme nearly 100 years ago! Yes, we know slavery is bad. Please say something new on the theme, or make us feel it, or something.
The novel also lacks emotion. The first two books ran on rage. Justice was a straight-up vengeance crusade. Sword was class-uprising. Both made me feel delicious anger. Ancillary Mercy falls flat. I stopped caring about the story by the time I was halfway through it. I couldn’t even care about Seivarden’s kef addiction anymore, which is the sign of a massive fumble on Leckie’s part, because fighting that addiction was a hugely satisfying portion of the first book. How did she make it so boring by the third? When it was briefly reintroduced it felt like an attempt to get the reader to care by saying “Hey, remember this really intense and touching plot line from the first book? Wasn’t that great? Feel those feelings again!” And yes, it was great back then. But trotting it out to evoke sympathetic emotions just doesn’t work. It’s like putting a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger in your new Terminator movie. Yes, we remember how awesome the first two Terminator movies were. Stuffing a CGI Arnold in there only reminds us of that, and makes yours look even worse in comparison.
The books also kept getting progressively smaller and less important. The first book culminated in an assassination attempt on the Emperor, and resulted in a galaxy-spanning civil war! It was epic! The second book shuffles our protagonist off to an out-of-the-way system where NONE of the war is taking place. But hey – it’s a middle book. There’s still a lot of local conflict, a slave-uprising, and some tension. In the third book the conflict is reduced to bureaucratic squabbling. One of the major conflicts in the book is about whether or not a long line of people are allowed to hold a peaceful protest. Seriously, it’s about whether or not people are allowed to silently stand in a queue. Goddammit Leckie, there is a galactic civil war going on just around the corner! Entire star systems are being destroyed, planets are being obliterated, and you’re boring us with local ordinances?? W.T.F??
The book isn’t painful to read. It’s written well. And there are dazzling moments, where Leckie’s genius flashes through. The replacement Presgar translator is a DELIGHT! She’s every genki anime girl ever, absolutely niave and hilarious! :) And there are scenes that take place between bursts of action, where the characters are wired up and waiting for action but have nothing to do but wait. They pass the time talking to each other, and these dialogs are brilliant. They feel extremely Tarantino-esqu, I could see them happening in one of his movies, as the characters stand in a room filled with bodies, holding guns, trying to kill some time by talking about cheeseburgers in France. It’s a delight. And, of course, the two scenes were Leckie returns to her frantic POV-jumping, which our protagonist can do by way of her implants that let her see and hear anything that’s happening to her crew. When there is a lot of action in a lot of different locations, these frantic smash-cuts back and forth are used to great effect, and make for extremely energetic story telling! But sadly, they are only used twice, and not for very long. Look, I appreciate that they must be exhausting to write. Every one of those scenes must have taken ages to put together, and tons of labor. But that’s what makes them impressive! You are a highly-acclaimed, multi-award-winning author. Act like it! Put in the effort!
There are, again, simple technical errors in understanding FTL. I don’t expect anyone to know all the minutia of how FTL implies time-travel, or anything. But I do expect that any ship that travels faster than light, actually travels faster than light. When a captain drops out of hyperspace to get her bearings, then jumps back in to approach her target, she should NEVER worry that she may have been seen in that brief instant. She will get to get target before they will have the ability to see her, because she’s traveling faster than that light! Such a basic, mechanistic failure of understanding in an SF author really bothers me.
But by far the worst part of this book is that the climax removes all agency from the protagonist, the antagonist, and basically all of humanity. It is a giant Deus Ex Machina that makes everything that’s come before irrelevant. And it does it in the most paternalistic way ever. The protagonist appeals to the god-aliens of the galaxy, pointing out that how her race is being treated isn’t fair. Seriously, that’s it. It’s a giant appeal to one’s parents. It is the most disappointing ending I’ve ever read. Then, to really cement how bad this book is, the denouement chapter is literally just a bunch of committee meetings. No no – literally.
This is the worst waste of talent I’ve seen in ages. We know Leckie can do better. Did she just get lazy? She simply reneged on so many promises she made (the alien-god-race basically never appeared. The Ghost System, which was mysterious and cool-as-hell sounding, was just an abandoned, empty system. We saw none of the civil war. etc) The first 90% of this book should have been discarded, and the story started with the alien intervention. Can you imagine what this story would have been like if the protagonist had to personally seek out an alliance with the alien-gods? Had to travel to bizarre sections of the galaxy and work her way through a completely alien culture? A culture so different from ours that they need to breed a translator race just to act as an intermediary for concepts that our two species cannot share, like individuality of consciousness? Their thought process is literally inconceivable, and yet she has to somehow convince them to take HER side? And doing so under severe time pressure, knowing that every day the overwhelming murder-fleet of the emperor is that much closer to genociding her adopted home-system? With all the misunderstandings and/or sabotage by the Emperor’s shadowy agents that this would entail? That could be an actual interesting story! Instead we got to read about how much manpower it will take to repair the Undergarden Sector, and which families will get to live there afterwards. /sigh
Book Club Review: This book had a suppressed turn-out, despite being a Hugo nominee, because it’s the third book in a trilogy. Those who’ve been at the book club for three years had read the first two, of course. But those who hadn’t either had to read three novels in two weeks(!), or jump into this one cold. For those who did the latter, it was very difficult for them to stick through the book to the end. Mostly, people were non-plussed by it. We did have one member who absolutely adored it, but she was sick for our meeting and couldn’t tell us the reasons why. :( Maybe she’ll let us know next meeting. I suspect that if your group ends up containing at least one person who really enjoyed this book a lot, it could make for some great conversation! As it is… the conversation wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t inspiring either.
It’s hard to put a rating on this. If it was a stand-alone book, I could justify a mild recommendation. The shining moments of brilliance really are great, and you can skim most of the rest without missing much. Plus the speculation on what the book could have been is stimulating as well. But, seeing as this is the third book in a trilogy, the buy-in to get here is just too high, especially with better options around. Ultimately, a mild Not Recommended.
[added 5/27] – See Quixote’s comment below for a much more favorable perspective. I find their analysis valuable, even if I disagree in some respects.
I actually liked this book quite a bit more than the second one. It’s been a while since I read it (read it when it first came out) so I may misremember some of the details.
I don’t think I can fully explain what I like about it without spoilers, so feel free to delete this comment if you don’t want spoilers in the comments section of your review articles.
The scope of this book is truly epic. Far more happens here and the change in society is far greater than the first two books put together. Empire, civil war, meh. In this book the AIs find their way out of the box; that’s much much bigger. In the first book, the astute reader notices with some mental dissonance that the story span’s thousands of years without much noticeable technological or social change. This book explains that Anaander Mianaai has been deliberately managing technology and society for thousands of years using draconian rule, universal surveillance, mind modification, etc to actively preserve this statis. She has been ruthlessly conquering other worlds to bring them under her umbrella because you can’t enforce statis in worlds you don’t control. And part of the motivation for all this is the understanding that once the AIs get too smart and start acting independently, the universe is no longer about humans. This is the book that happens.
Next, I don’t think the aliens are a deus ex machina, here, I think they were set up and telegraphed from the very beginning and this book brings it all full circle. The start of the action in the long ago memories of the first book, are when the aliens intervene and provide ship destroying weapons to a world the radtch is invading allowing them to destroy several ships and prompting massive retaliation. The protagonist speculates on how that experience changed everyone there. The alien actions set things in motion since the beginning. They also change Anaander Mianaai, not just with regret for the death she caused, but because she realizes she can’t directly exert control anymore against a technologically superior foe. She shifts gears, acts nicer, shifts to “soft power” and eventually enacts a treaty. Her internal split is not just nice vs. mean, it is the part of her that accepts maintaining something like the status quo under a treaty vs. the part that can’t give up active control. The fight is can she (Anaander) accept change, and the resolution in this book is that you can’t control change. Once the ball is rolling things unfold in ways you could not foresee at the beginning. This is the culmination of that first intervention thousands of years ago.
For a book that is about power and acceptance, about resisting change while trying to drive it and control it with limited capabilities, the small scale actions of the protestors are an excellent metaphor. Were any of Anaander’s wars ultimately more or less effective in changing the Presgar than standing in line was in changing the administration?
> In this book the AIs find their way out of the box; that’s much much bigger.
Ah! In chapter 6 I highlighted the line “AIs are already smarter and stronger than humans, what happens when they decide they don’t need humans at all?” with great happiness, because this was actually an interesting theme that I was excited to see explored! But then she never did. I guess the AIs did get out of the box by the end, but there were no ramifications to that. To explore a theme it has to have an impact on the events of the story, it can’t just be some background fact.
> In the first book, the astute reader notices with some mental dissonance that the story span’s thousands of years without much noticeable technological or social change.
I chalked it up to authorial oversight, much like the “treating FTL travel as if it were slower than light” mistake I mentioned. Your explanation is far more satisfying. :) I am a big proponent of fan retcons, but I’m not willing to make it my head-canon without further support.
> And part of the motivation for all this is the understanding that once the AIs get too smart and start acting independently, the universe is no longer about humans.
If that would have been made clear, I would have enjoyed this series a great deal more! However I never got that impression. From what I recall, Tyrant-Mianaai’s motivation is entirely about personal powerlust.
> The alien actions set things in motion since the beginning.
I don’t think this prevents them from being a deus ex machina though. They swooped in at the end of the story when the protagonist was completely screwed and couldn’t fix the situation herself, and set everything right with their god-like powers. That’s the essence of a deus ex machina, right? Simply being set up earlier doesn’t change that. Maybe if the book was about the struggle to gain them as allies it would have worked, because then the saving would be a result of the hero’s actions. As it is… eh.
> They also change Anaander Mianaai, not just with regret for the death she caused, but because she realizes she can’t directly exert control anymore against a technologically superior foe. She shifts gears, acts nicer, shifts to “soft power” and eventually enacts a treaty. Her internal split is not just nice vs. mean, it is the part of her that accepts maintaining something like the status quo under a treaty vs. the part that can’t give up active control. The fight is can she (Anaander) accept change, and the resolution in this book is that you can’t control change.
Ahhhh! This is a very interesting perspective. I can totally see that. And that is a very cool theme! But if this is the case — and I imagine it must be, because it fits so well! — then I think it was a huge mistake for Leckie to follow Justice of Torren for the following two books. Partly because Justice of Torren is the opposite of this theme (she very much fights against being passive. Her story is one of a ship that started out passive, accepting whatever she was given, who grew into an active agent that rebelled against the world as it was and decided to spur orders and change things in her image). But mainly because what you describe is Anaander’s story! *She* should be the character driving that narrative, because it’s happening to her, and she’s the one who experiences the character arc of growing to accept change and “soft power.” Why was that story be told from the perspective of someone who is, at best, a background character? Leckie even introduces Tisarwat as the Emperor’s character, and then immediately removes the Emperor from within her! It’s like she’s *trying* to fail.
> For a book that is about power and acceptance, about resisting change while trying to drive it and control it with limited capabilities, the small scale actions of the protestors are an excellent metaphor. Were any of Anaander’s wars ultimately more or less effective in changing the Presgar than standing in line was in changing the administration?
I like your interpretation. It does raise my opinion of the book, because now I see what was being attempted, even if the execution was… flawed (IMHO). Thank you for sharing this! :)
Glad you appreciated the perspective. I do think many of your criticisms of the book are fair and its less fun to read than the first one, but I did enjoy it.
Also, the reason I found this series in the first place was your review of Ancillary Justice, so thank you very much for that. I’ve found a lot of good books via your reviews. I know posting on the internet can sometime feel like speaking into the abyss, but at least in this case there is someone on the other side of the screen that is thankful.
I am super sad this is the case. I really liked the last two books. I think I will check it out. I think having my expectations lowered for this one will allow me to enjoy this more than reported.