Book Review: Ancillary Mercy
So Ancillary Mercy did...not quite go where I was expecting. But I still loved it, and it's an excellent conclusion to a strong, memorable series.
Breq has done a pretty good job of cleaning up the Athoek system. There's still a priest giving her trouble and complications with the Undergarden resulting from the climax of Ancillary Sword, but on the whole, things are going fine. Then the other Anaander Mianaai shows up, the violent, angry one with a tendency to destroy whole systems in her rage. Now Breq has to find a way to save the people she loves and stop Anaander from taking control of the system she's worked so hard to put right.
I've said time and again that Breq is the real strength of this series, and that continues to be on full display here. Each novel has shown us a new aspect of her personality and pattern of thought. Ancillary Mercy hones in on Breq's interactions with the other AIs, whether that's her discovery that Mercy of Kalr really does like her as its captain, her enemy-of-my-enemy relationship with Sphene, or her burgeoning mutual respect with Station.
Those other AIs bloom into characters in their own rights, particularly Mercy of Kalr and Station, but also Sword of Atagaris and Sphene. They have their own wants and motivations, even their own personalities, to an extent (Sphene certainly does). While most of the other characters ignore those wants and motivations, Breq cannot because of who and what she is. Her attention to the AIs drives the other characters to pay attention as well, and in turn causes the other AIs to consider their current place in the universe and what they want to be in the future.
We also get the return of Anaander Mianaai (who I did miss in Ancillary Sword because she's just such a good character concept). And there's plenty more depth and insight into Mercy of Kalr's crew, with a little less focus on Tisarwat this time around.
Where Ancillary Sword was a slower breath of air (the calm before the storm, so to speak), Ancillary Mercy ratchets up the pace a bit with Anaander's arrival. Breq made a lot of enemies in Sword and now those enemies have a chance to get revenge. And Sword set up a lot of dominos for Mercy to knock down; as a result, the whole book moves at a breathless pace.
Much like the first book, there are several memorable sequences, particularly the one where Breq fires on Anaander's ships from the hull of Mercy of Kalr as it pops in and out of gate space. Breq can be downright crazy when she wants to be.
In the end, the book comes firmly to rest on a few key questions. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be sentient and not be human? How do sentient machines function with humanity when they're set free, no longer bound by the restrictions we put on them?
It's a messy ending - it doesn't wrap everything up with a nice bow, and it raises a lot of questions for the future of the Radch. But it's the right ending because life is messy. Ancillary Mercy is a standout conclusion to an standout series.