Before I begin I should warn you, dear reader, that Ancillary Mercy is the last book in the Imperial Radch trilogy and what follows may contain spoilerishy things for the first two books in case you plan to read them!
Ancillary Mercy takes up right where Ancillary Sword left off: Breq’s revelations leave her crew reeling with shock; there’s the question of the ghost gate and the mysterious occupants beyond it; Anaander Mianaai is still AWOL; and to complicate matters further a new Presger translator arrives on the scene, just a few pages into the book. The scene is set and everyone’s on tenterhooks!
Ancillary Mercy is a fast paced, gripping read. And yet despite being a page-turner the thing that strikes me the most about this book, and in fact this trilogy as a whole, is its meditative quality. (Is there a category called ‘meditative thriller?’ ‘Cus Ann Leckie would definitely belong there!) I think this is partly because of the way Leckie structures her story. Scenes of nail-biting action alternate with details of ordinary existence. You might be annihilated any second but till that happens you still need to eat and you still need to—pardon my crudeness—poop. It’s this juxtaposition of extremities that often brings what matters into a startling focus.
Against the background of an uncertain intergalactic war, Leckie explores the invisible nature of privilege. While Seivarden’s character makes the “peculiar benefits” of privilege pretty obvious, Breq’s realizations sneak up on her and the reader. That this happens to wise, omniscient Breq who sees to the heart of the matter is a masterstroke on Leckie’s part. It really brings home how easy it is to overlook one’s own position of privilege and the power imbalances that can result in one’s relationships because of this.
All this doesn’t take into account the details that make the Imperial Radch world feel so alive. My particular favorite is the layers of meaning that Leckie vests glove-wearing with—in Leckie’s world not wearing gloves would cause greater mortification than being naked. I’ve never really thought about the things that we take for granted as social mores but this trilogy has made me wonder at their arbitrariness and how the very same thing that causes ridicule in one culture might be valued in another.
Then there is the gentle menace of the Presgers who are unable to distinguish one human from another. The translator in particular often provides comic relief accompanied by a swift feeling of disorientation in the scenes where she (he? it?) is present. The question of what it means to be human—Is it having a body? Feelings? Awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings? Consciousness? Sentience? All of the above? A combination of some?—crops up again and again through the course of the story (and the trilogy) and is central to resolving one of the conflicts in the book. This resolution might come across as gimmicky to some readers but it seemed like a logical next step in the story that Leckie has been telling.
Leckie has mentioned that while Breq’s story is done with she WILL be writing more novels set in this universe. I can’t wait! I’m hoping to see some more of the Presgers in future books. I’ll end with a bit that’s poignantly funny:
I turned my head at a splash from across the courtyard. Translator Zeiat stood upright now, one leg still in water, one arm soaked and dripping. A small orange fish wriggled desparately in her grip. As I watched she tilted her head back and held the fish over her mouth. “Translator!” I said, loud and sharp, as she turned her head toward me. “Please don’t do that. Please put the fish back in the water.”
“But it’s a fish.” Her expression was frankly perplexed. “Aren’t fish for eating?” The district magistrate stood at the top of the steps into the courtyard, staring at the translator.
“Some fish are for eating.” I went over to where the translator stood half in and out of the water. “Not this one.” I cupped my hands, held them out. With a little scowl, Translator Zeiat dropped the fish into my outstretched hands, and I quickly tipped it into the basin before it could flip out onto the ground. “These fish are for looking at.”
“Are you not supposed to look at the fish you eat?” Translator Zeiat asked. “And how do you tell the difference?”