Recent Reads: Ancillary Mercy

“I feel a bit unqualified,” I confessed to my dad. “A lowly indie author criticizing a Nebula award winner?”

The man who always provides unflinchingly candid feedback on my manuscripts observed that acclaimed works don’t always stand on their own merit. “Call it like you see it,” he advised.

So I will. Ancillary Mercy let me down. A book hasn’t disappointed me this badly since I read Tana French’s Into The Woods (ironically, another acclaimed novel). That story probably would be an all-time favorite of mine if not for the implosion of an ending: I felt like the author betrayed me and fumed for days. With Mercy, it’s more a sense of annoyed regret that the series never lived up to the promise of its first installment.

Ancillary Justice, an intriguing puzzle-box of a novel, had the potential to blossom into an edgy, unique space opera. But the series slowly deflated. Sequel Ancillary Sword expanded the story but beyond sustainability, spreading plotlines thin with too little tension and character development to support them. I can forgive a middle-novel slump and hoped Mercy, the final novel, would redeem the trilogy. Instead, it doubles down on the flaws of its predecessor.

drink-tea-and-carry-on-12

This could have been the alternate cover for “Ancillary Mercy”.

I may be a lowly indie author, but I know there’s truth in the writer’s adage “show, don’t tell”. Mercy tells readers a great deal. We’re arbitrarily reminded of various things that happened in the previous stories. Reports of a political schism tearing apart the empire occasionally surface, but we never see the action. Medics and officers coolly dissect the psychological dilemmas of other characters, rather than letting readers witness the behavior or draw their own interpretations.

Even the befuddled attempt at a love triangle—well, not really a triangle. Trapezoid, maybe? Hard to tell, since it never really took shape—plays out at a dispassionate distance. Flickers of life arise in the middle, when Breq begins tentatively exploring the human part of herself. I hoped this theme would crescendo to a satisfying conclusion but, like so many other narrative threads in the series, it fizzles out.

Both prior books had abrupt climaxes, so I wasn’t expecting Mercy to indulge me in a laser-gun showdown or brilliant political coup. But its ending sunk to an unprecedented low. [VERY GENERIC SPOILER ALERT] The final reckoning is a brief, faintly comic exchange with an unpleasant whiff of deus ex machina. Leckie bludgeons us with that science fiction standard, “are artificial intelligences sentient?” (Not that it’s an inappropriate theme for this story, but even unperceptive readers could’ve inferred it from the story without such bald exposition.) Breq scores on a rhetorical technicality and her antagonist retreats, saying “I would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

Really? That’s it? The galactic civil war presumably still rages in other sectors, but none of the characters seem terribly concerned about it. Leckie makes several references to Breq’s mysterious past on another planet without ever illuminating the details. Relationships remain unresolved. Everyone simply pours another cup of tea and carries on. After how much I enjoyed the first novel, I truly wanted to like its companions, but they left me as flat and expressionless as an ancillary soldier. Perhaps the book’s real “mercy” is that it finally brings this underdeveloped series to its mediocre end.

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