Recent Reading: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

So, I finally got a chance to read Ancillary Mercy. Which is to say, I started at the beginning and re-read Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, followed by Ancillary Mercy.


What a fantastic story this is, all the way through.

But you know what? I really do like the second book better than the first. After happening across various other readers’ comments about the first and second books, I thought maybe I was just wrong about my own preference. But, no. I loved the first book. I loved Breq from the beginning, and the worldbuilding, and the setup. But I loved the second book more. And the third, it turns out, about as much as the second. I saw the ultimate solution coming, but for me it’s not about the solution to the problem, it’s about getting to that solution, the details about how the solution is managed, and then the resolution of the story afterward. It’s like a murder mystery: I don’t care much whether I figure out who did it because for me that isn’t the point of reading the mystery. So predicting the solution didn’t interfere with how much I enjoyed the third book of the series.

I do wonder whether a lot of readers predicted the solution, though? It seemed to me that the story *had* to end with essentially that exact solution, that there was no other way out of the corner into which Breq had painted herself.

Anyway, yes, I liked the second and third books best. Partly this has to do with what particular issues Breq is dealing with on the way to defeating the Lord of the Radch, and how she deals with those issues. The situation with the Undergarden, the situation below on the planet, the dire situation with Dlique getting shot, the situation with Spene – all those problems are very appealing, substantially more so than the specific problem in the first book, of how to get at Anaander Mianaai and shoot her, which after all is pretty pointless considering how many of her there are in the Radch. Of course Breq does a lot more than just shoot a couple iterations of Anaander Mianaai; she brings the tyrant’s little problem out into the open and forces her to recognize it. Still, the problems Breq faces in the other two books, and how she handles them, appeal to me more than main problem of the first book.

But I think the main reason I prefer the second and third books is the appeal of the secondary characters. Seivarden is such a jackass in the first book. He improves a great deal over the course of the story and is a pretty decent person in the second book, though he can still be a jerk. But I *really* liked Tisarwat, who didn’t appear till the second book. The dreadful situation Tisarwat endures is particularly appealing to me. Tisarwat is a great character. The reader can just imagine how overwhelming Tisarwat’s experience has been, how difficult it is to deal with. I love how Tisarwat does deal with it and the part she plays in the resolution of the story. Also, I really liked a lot of the almost-nameless supporting cast that appear later in the story, like Kalr Five and Bo Nine. And Station. And Mercy of Kalr and Spene.

And surely everyone loves Presger Translator Dlique and Presger Translator Zeiat? They are so delightfully weird. The thing with eating the oyster was perfect. It was important to demonstrate that the translators are in fact not human, and that does it.

So, as always, for me it’s all about the characters, even more than the worldbuilding. Though the worldbuilding is fabulous. For me, the gender thing is interesting, but fairly trivial. Yes, it implies a more or less gender neutral society, or possibly a society with a tendency toward female dominance. Few if any reviews I’ve read have commented that this gender-neutral or feminized culture is also emphatically repressive, imperialistic, and culturally appropriative – a fabulous juxtaposition of cultural traits that helps the society seem even more peculiar. I appreciated the depth of cultural parochialism shown by the Radchaai and the way that parochialism was supported by their language, in which it’s impossible to say that non-Radchaai are civilized.

But the use of feminine pronouns as the default hardly seems worth all the attention it’s gotten from reviewers. I’m sure you’ve all seen Mark Twain’s essay where he translates a passage from German to English, keeping all the gendered pronouns and nouns intact. “The tomcat, she is carrying her kittens.” Is that so much less strange than the way gender is handled by the Radchaai language? No, what makes gender actually interesting in Leckie’s trilogy is Breq’s unique inability to recognize gender cues, and that’s not a cultural trait of the Radchaai, it’s just Breq. Actually, one could write a human character with that particular disability – it could be seen as a form of face-blindness, a specific deficit in recognizing what you look at. The human brain is peculiar; I can easily imagine someone with such a visual deficit. Wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to do to your protagonist? Though it’s harder to imagine a dysfunction that would extend to recognition of gender by voice.

Anyway, there are lots of more interesting things about Breq than her inability to automatically recognize the gender of people she meets, including her own genderless nature, her memory of having been a ship, her experience of having lots of bodies active at once – Leckie handles this so beautifully – but most particularly, an aspect of her character that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, her complete obliviousness to her own motivations. To me, that is Breq’s single most noteworthy characteristic.

Right there on page one, we see this passage:

Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do. Even after all this time it’s still a new thing to me not to know, not to have orders to follow from one moment to the next. So I can’t explain to you why I stopped and with one foot lifted the necked shoulder so I could see the person’s face.

And then Breq rescues Seivarden without the faintest conscious awareness of why she’s doing so, jumps off the bridge to save him without understanding why, and goes right on through the whole trilogy the same way. Oh, she understands some things about herself. She understands that she’s angry, and why – or she understands part of why she’s angry. But there is so much about herself that she honestly doesn’t understand, and that the reader does. For such a long time in the third book, Breq can’t sort out her reactions to Mercy of Kalr, but the reader doesn’t have any trouble understanding what’s going on. And the ultimate solution to the main problem of how to deal with Anaander Mianaai? That only works because Breq legitimately doesn’t see it coming. In a first-person narrative, the way the solution is handled could very easily feel like Leckie hiding the solution from the reader – cheating to make the solution a surprise. But because Breq is unaware of so much of her own subconscious, it does work. Or at least, it did for me.

General rating: Five out of five. Nine out of ten, nine and a half. The actual solution really was predictable, or it’d be a ten.

Best for: Character readers who love ornate worldbuilding and stories set in cultures that are not much like modern American culture.

If you loved the Ancillary trilogy, you might try: The Chanur series by CJ Cherryh. More political, I suppose, but what CJC does with nonhuman protagonists, cultures, and species ought to appeal to readers who loved those aspects of Leckie’s trilogy.

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