Hugo Award Assessment: Ancillary Mercy

The last book in a trilogy has a specific purpose that it must be measured by. The last book in a trilogy needs to wrap up the main plot and character threads in a satisfying way, and so in general it is judged by how well it manages to do that.

“Ancillary Mercy” was betrayed and destroyed by the previous books in the series. They developed absolutely no interesting plot or character threads that in any way required resolution. And a big reason for this is that this entire trilogy is a prime example of a work that simply expresses ideas but fails to develop them.

There are lots of ideas talked about in the trilogy. We have the big civil war, the fact that the civil war is between aspects of the same person, the fact that the leader essentially runs the empire through “ancillaries” (which are different physical bodies with her personality at least uploaded into them), the ships that are crewed by similar ancillaries, the ships having sophisticated AIs that are treated as mere things and not persons, the one ship that loses the ship and all of its ancillaries and lives on inside one ancillary (this is the main character), the character progression of one out-of-time lieutenant, corruption in the Empire, relations with the alien Praesger, and a host of other ideas. But none of them get developed enough for us to care about them.

In the first book, this wasn’t all that annoying, as we expect world and character building to happen there, and so it was just a decently paced book that often devolved into pointless conversations. But this inability to develop any plot line started to grate in the second book, and by the beginning of the third book I realized that any event or plot or character line of any significance had been relegated to background event as we went through. The main character rarely talked about having any issues and didn’t show any development in the work, so we couldn’t be following her character development. The civil war was background in the second and the third, only rearing its head when it needed to complicate something. The aliens were brought in, again, only as complications. The AI issues were raised without sufficient development, and interesting issues with trying to deal with them were swept aside in short conversations that didn’t really do anything. The third book spends a lot of time on Seivarden’s problems and character development, but Seivarden was a) a character that we had no real reason to like, b) a character that the protagonist didn’t like and c) a character whose problems only arose when it was convenient for them to arise. Ultimately, it was a minor element of the work that no one cared about.

It didn’t help that the protagonist was far too competent for a story like this to work. Breq or Justice of Toren or whatever was pretty much always a step ahead of everyone and knew everyone’s plots well before they caused too much trouble. Breq was even given a superweapon that could even take out entire ships even though it was a handgun, which strained credibility. With a character that competent, there was little tension; every plot was snuffed out before it could really take shape, and the main character never had to struggle with anything, and so had no possibility of any character arc where they struggled and overcame limitations. While the character started out interesting, by the end the character was just a bit boring, with only our initial good will from the first book saving Breq from being detested.

The ur-example of the “expression but not exploring ideas” is the novel — and controversial — use of the female pronoun for everyone. What was this supposed to achieve? Since Leckie uses it when referencing specific people, it can’t be used to highlight how the male pronoun is assumed in some cases, since the male pronoun is explicitly not used when addressing specific, known people. Since Leckie still talks about people having different physical genders, it’s not a way to eliminate gender and explore that idea. She doesn’t use it to create an all-female empire, or even use it to explore how such a usage could come about. She uses the pronoun, but that being a part of the language is in no way important, nor explored, other than with an aside about how using the wrong pronoun offends gendered societies … but she never explores if those societies are benighted or proper or anything. Anything of interest wrt that usage came from me, with my first — and continually — treating all characters as female even if the work said they weren’t — Seivarden is mentioned once as being male — and in one case thinking of a character as male despite the pronouns and despite the book probably not mentioning it. Leckie seems to think that doing this is somehow cool and interesting, but because she goes nowhere with it and does nothing with it it is more an annoyance to the reader than anything else.

The pacing of the work is overall good; things don’t bog down as much as they did in “Seveneves” — although that’s a low bar — and it seems to me that the pacing was better than “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”. Unfortunately, it’s inability to develop anything ends up making “Ancillary Mercy” an incredibly annoying book. I was prepared to grant “Ancillary Justice” a solid “Meh”, but “Ancillary Mercy” is, all things considered, a poor work. Not as bad as “Seveneves” … but, again, that’s a low bar.

I’ll post my notes on the entire trilogy next week, again. And the next book on the list is “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik, the work that Vox Day recommended win.

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