A review by Sam Sheikh
By Ann Leckie
Remember when sci-fi was all about galactic emperors, spaceships, and super soldiers, and posed big questions about gender, class, self-determination, consciousness, and sentience? Ann Leckie tackles all these in her award-winning trilogy Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Sword (2014), and Ancillary Mercy (2015). The result is a series that reads like a refreshing sci-fi throwback yet is as relevant today as it would have been in the 1960s.
Just as The Hunger Games trilogy bears passing resemblance to the Roman Empire and the Servile Wars, the setting for Leckie’s trilogy slightly resembles the Roman Civil Wars of the Late Empire. The Radch empire consists of a vast intergalactic domain of human planetary systems and civilizations. Like the Roman empire, the Radch assimilates all who are annexed and acquiescent. Those who show particular promise are afforded opportunities for advancement as new citizens of the Radch. All is Radch, or else, barbarian.
Lord Anaander Mianaai has totalitarian control over her empire. She rules each and every citizen ruthlessly and has access to the thoughts and actions of her subjects. To manage the space-and-time vastness of her empire, she possesses many bodies in human form sharing a single consciousness. Interestingly, Leckie uses the female pronoun for every character in her novels. The effect is slightly reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s examination of androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness.
Ships and stations are run by vast, complex artificial intelligence. The AIs also control ancillaries–basically extensions of the AI in human form for tasks such as ship maintenance or ground combat.
The first two books; Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, provide the setting and the exposition. Readers are introduced to Breq, the sole remaining ancillary of the AI of the destroyed Justice of Toren. Both the Justice of Toren and its crew are caught in an unfolding intrigue between different instances of Lord Mianaai. Alone for the first time in an ancillary body and having lost her ship, crew, and other ancillaries, Breq swears revenge. While undertaking a personal mission to assassinate Lord Mianaai, Breq also works to prevent a full civil war between the different forms. Allying temporarily with one of the forms of Lord Mianaai, Breq is promoted and sent to protect another system from the other factions.
Leckie follows with a finale in Ancillary Mercy, where Breq must confront a fleet commanded by Lord Mianaai intent on securing the system and its resources. The question, “Which Lord Mianaai?” is promptly followed by, “Does it matter?” Breq works to protect the system and its inhabitants while eliciting the support of different factions, beings, humans, and AIs–without resorting to the draconian methods of Lord Mianaai. To succeed otherwise is to lose anyway.
Leckie writes with the style of the old-school authors. She presents a good space opera with just enough hard science, all the while carefully avoiding glib or clichéd sci-fi. I enjoyed the little touches that bring the novel and its settings to life, such as the vaguely East Asian aesthetic and cultural origins, the examination of language both written and spoken to form deeper ideas and meanings (such as ideograms and puns), and the pantheon of gods and god-related profanity. Leckie does an equally fine job with her rich characterizations. Even her action sequences–a staple of the space opera–steer tastefully away from the lurid.
Nothing Ms. Leckie uses is particularly striking or original. The concept of ship AIs parallels Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Iain M. Banks’s Culture series. As mentioned, the sense of androgyny created is similar to Le Guin’s work. Leckie’s skill is in effortlessly weaving these and other elements into a bright and delightful brocade without resorting to laborious backstories and explanations.
Ancillary Mercy is a smart and cogent sci-fi novel that both entertains and tests our minds. It is a very satisfying ending to a fine series.