It's been some months now since I read "Ancillary Mercy". I held back from reviewing it, not because it wasn't good but because what made it good was so pervasive, so delicate and so intricately linked to the two preceding books, whose meaning it subtly modifies, that I didn't know where to start.
I'm writing this review now so that I can capture how it felt to read, "Ancillary Justice" and finish the Imperial Radch trilogy before I read Ann Leckie's latest book, "Provenance" which set in the same universe but with a very different focus.
Firstly, I was left with a real sense of progression and completeness that I always hope for in a trilogy but rarely get. This completeness comes not from the unravelling of a mystery or from an exponential growth of world-building but from somewhere much more interesting, the emotional growth of the main character.
There aren't many science fiction books I can make that kind of statement about, even fewer when the main character is an AI (although Joel Shepherd's last three books in the Cassandra Kresnove series also do this well).
The first book, "Ancillary Justice", Breq, an AI in a human body who was formerly the warship Justice of Toren, was alone, recovering from crippling betrayal and seeking vengeance. Even then, she seemed to me to be a better person than many of the humans she encountered.
In "Ancillary Sword", Breq has a command of a ship, an imperial mission and an opportunity to repay a debt of honour to the family of one Justice of Toren's officers. In that book, Breq has moved beyond simple vengeance to the consideration of just use of power and the nature of personhood. She is building relationships, administering justice and recreating herself into a person with a very different view of life than the one Justice of Toren had lived within.
What I liked most about "Ancillary Mercy" is that Breq not only completes the building of her new identity but, in doing so, she changes many of the people and AIs around her. Breq has replaced a hunger for revenge with something much more important, the need and ability to love and be loved. She wins the love and loyalty of her human crew. She prompts other Ships and Station AIs to consider their own personhood and desires and she brokers a the opportunity for a kind of peace.
I'm aware that this is not necessarily the explosive ending some people were looking for. I've seen the reviews that complain that too much time in this book is spent making tea.
Tea, in Breq's world, is an archetype of civilization. It is about thought, courtesy, respect, discipline, hospitality and refusal to have one's will drowned in the torrent of events. It is about making choices and exercising will. Tea is Breq's alternative to weapons of mass destruction and, in my view, shows that she has transformed herself from an intelligent military asset of the Empire into a person seeking freedom for herself and others.
If you don't find those ideas interesting, then this probably isn't the book for you.
There is, of course, more to the book than tea. There is brinkmanship, warfare, encounters with the disturbingly alien and clashes between cultures and classes that are as old as time. There is perfectly paced storytelling, that holds you in suspense but never tempts you to skip ahead and most of all there are many, many believable characters who make the story rich and credible.
I'm sure the Imperial Radch trilogy will become one of the classics of science fiction. I know I will read all of it again. But not until I've read "Provence" and anything else new that Ann Lecke publishes.
Ajoha Andoh's narration of all three books is perfect. Listen to the SoundCloud extract below to hear for yourself.
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Hercule Poirot frowned.
"Miss Lemon," he said.
"Yes, M. Poirot?"
"There are three mistakes in this letter."
His voice held incredulity. For Miss Lemon, that hideous and efficient woman, never made mistakes. She was never ill, never tired, never upset, never inaccurate. For all practical purposes, that is to say, she was not a woman at all. She was a machine - the perfect secretary. She knew everything, she coped with everything. She ran Hercule Poirot's life for him, so that it, too, functioned like a machine.
Order and method had been Hercule Poirot's watchwords from many years ago. With George, his perfect manservant, and Miss Lemon, his perfect secretary, order and method ruled supreme in his life. Now that crumpets were baked square as well as round, he had nothing about which to complain.
Square crumpets?! Have I missed these so far?
Anyway, to the book... Hickory Dickory Dock was a fun read, in which Miss Lemon gets some page time. The story is set in 1955 in London and Miss Lemon is worried about her sister and the strange goings on at the hostel where her sister works: Things have gone missing.
In order to return to a life of normalcy and perfection, Poirot offers to help Miss Lemon's sister solve the mystery of the disappearing items.
Hickory Dickory Dock is a great story to note the differences in Christie's writing between the pre- and post-war periods. This story is set in the 50s, and the bright young things are now less decadent and more international. The youth comes across in Christie's dialogues reasonably well, but the international aspect made me cringe.
Let's face it, despite her efforts, Christie just was not great at writing characters from non-English backgrounds.
Still, it was fun watching Poirot solve this, even if sometimes you just want to kick Poirot in the shins.
Hercule Poirot nodded understandingly. It seemed to him appropriate that Miss Lemon's sister should have spent most of her life in Singapore. That was what places like Singapore were for. The sisters of women like Miss Lemon married men in business in Singapore, so that the Miss Lemons of this world could devote themselves with machine-like efficiency to their employers' affairs (and of course to the invention of filing systems in their moments of relaxations).
I haven't rated this book because I've abandoned it three hours in to a thirty hour book.
The writing is excellent. The characterisation is subtle and clear. The sense of doom is all pervasive. I just couldn't cope with the subject matter.
Three hours of contemplating the rationale for, mechanics of and damage inflicted by child abuse was as much as I could stomach. Another twenty-seven hours of it was inconceivable.
If you have a stronger stomach than I do, I'm sure you'll find this to be a compelling read with three strong but flawed woman as the main characters.
Shirley Jackson is so good at taking us inside the heads of characters who really don’t fully understand how disturbed they are, and neither do we, until we do. And that a-ha moment, when clarity hits. This story leaves me with even more questions about what is real or not and fascinated with the dynamics between individual characters, their family unit, and between them and the townsfolk. And maybe it’s because I was reading Carpe Jugulum at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking of
those final scenes in terms of classic stories of villagers becoming a howling mob with torches and pitchforks to storm the castle where the monster lives. Or maybe that was intentional on the author's part. The girls in their isolation in that big old house with their almost mythic backstory of murder really kind of fit the monster in the castle and angry, frightened villagers, don't they?
Audiobook via Audible. Bernadette Dunn’s performance is as outstanding as it was for The Haunting of Hill House.