Ancillary Trilogy [Library of Babel]

The hot SF release of the fall is Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy, concluding the Imperial Radch trilogy. The first of these, Ancillary Justice won a Hugo two years ago, and the second, Ancillary Sword should've won this past year, because I really didn't like the Three-Body Problem.

The release of Ancillary Mercy generated a ton of buzz, to the point where, as I remarked on Twitter, I felt as if I were letting down some ill-defined "side" by not being more excited about it. But while I liked Ancillary Justice quite a bit (it's the rare book I've voted for the Best Novel Hugo that's actually won), I thought Ancillary Mercy was very much a middle-book-in-a-trilogy, with all the problems that implies. It had some nice bits, but didn't really resolve anything, and it wasn't clear to me that all the remaining issues could really be tied up in the third volume.

(Part of my problem with it was the fault of the publisher who did the ebook edition. They tacked on a thirty-page preview of some other book, which inflated the page count dramatically. This made the ending seem even more abrupt than it actually is, as I was looking at the little counter on the bottom of my screen and thinking there was one more big setpiece to come...)

Anyway, as I feel some obligation to make sensible nominating decisions for next year's Hugos, I made a point of reading this right away, and my concern about the ending both was and was not well-founded. That is, it was, in fact, possible for Leckie to bring the many important issues left dangling at the end of Ancillary Sword to a conclusion, but only because the author's idea of what the most important issues were was very different than mine.

(I'll try to keep this very general, but if you're strongly anti-SPOILERS, you might not want to read further)

The issue really has to do with the shape and scope of the books. Ancillary Justice starts small, and ends big-- it begins with one individual's quest for personal revenge, but as the plot unfolds, this turns out to have major implications for a vast interstellar empire. The second book sorta-kinda repeats this on a somewhat larger scale-- the protagonist is placed in charge of a space station in a relative backwater, and forced to deal with a lot of local issues that in the end turn out to have some connection to empire-scale issues.

The connection to the big interstellar conflict only comes in very briefly at the end of the second volume, which is why the ending felt abrupt and unsatisfying to me-- too much of that part of the overarching plot was left unresolved. The local stories all got plenty of attention, and were dealt with in a full and complete way, but the galactic-scale stuff that I found really fascinating was pushed to the background.

The third volume repeats this pattern in a way that makes clear that the problem with the second wasn't a failure of writing or plotting, but a difference of opinion about what was really important. Once again, local issues are foregrounded, and while the galactic-scale conflict does re-enter, it gets relatively little time, and is resolved in a way that's way too deus ex machina for my tastes. Which makes perfect sense if you view the emotional arc of Breq and her various lieutenants and subordinates as the really important part of the story, and that's very well done. It's just not what I wanted or expected after the first book.

(A flippant summary of the problem, riffing off a very different work: I was expecting and hoping for a book about interstellar civil war, but the book I got was more concerned with gentrification.)

And, you know, that's a perfectly valid artistic and aesthetic choice. It just happens to lead to a book that's ends up being disappointing to me, because I wanted something else from the overall story. And, of course, having been disappointed in the ending then colors my retrospective impressions of the rest of it-- some of the more stylistically innovative aspects of the series and up looking like problems rather than strengths, to me. But then, I can't say with any confidence that this reflects a real issue with the storytelling rather than just a mental downgrading of the whole thing because I didn't like the way it ended.

So, that's my wishy-washy summary of maybe the most celebrated SF series of recent years. Which, like many of my less-positive reviews, boils down to "It's very good if it's the kind of thing you're looking for." It turned out not to be the kind of thing I was looking for, and as a result was ultimately disappointing, but somebody coming at it with different expectations might well regard it as a triumph.

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So, I LOVED the third book in the trilogy. But I was never expecting galactic civil war. I found the third book surprisingly funny (the translator is a wonderful character) and I liked the unexpected turn towards AI rights which of course is a natural turn for Breq but which I still did not expect. I also liked seeing Seivarden and Tisarwat learn and grow, each in her own direction, toward becoming better at life.

I was wondering what sets the tone for your expectations of a book, or how you choose a book based on what you are "looking for." Is it the blurb, or the cover art, or do you read reviews before hand? Or did you feel that the first book led to expectations that did not pan out in subsequent books?

What are some books you love, and why?

Yeah, I can completely see where you're coming from as far as personal expectations, and that's a legit - not grievance, maybe - but observation.

On the other hand, although I think I would have enjoyed the "galactic civil war" story if that's what the author had decided to tell, I really enjoyed both book two and book three because I liked those stories too, and I think the author was quite skilled at telling them.


I think it was Jim Henley who pointed out that the end of Ancillary Mercy is basically the founding of the Culture.

By Ross Smith (not verified) on 01 Nov 2015 #permalink

Like I said, it does a good job with the story it's telling, it's just not the story I want. I couldn't finish The Goblin Emperor last year for more or less the same reason-- it's a lovely book for what it is, but the author was very clearly interested in something I didn't particularly want.

The thing that in this trilogy that I think becomes a weakness in retrospect is the stylistically innovative bit of having it narrated by Breq. Which is very cool, but also kind of distancing-- I never had much attachment to any of the other characters, because they were so under-drawn. That was kind of a cool wrinkle when I thought it was an interstellar civil war story, but if the real core of the story is the emotional arc of Breq and her lieutenants, that lack of attachment is a major problem.

After a brief break thanks to a massive tantrum from The Pip:

What are some books you love, and why?

In sort of the same territory as these, I'm generally a big fan of Robert Charles Wilson, who does a masterful job balancing small intensely personal stories with giant cosmic sci-fi stuff. Spin is probably his best, but I like just about everything I've read from him. (Last year's The Affinities was weaker than most, though.)

In more recent stuff, it'll be hard to beat Seveneves for Hugo-eligible novels next year. Shortly before Ancillary Mercy I read Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze, which I liked a good deal.

I tend to read more fantasy than science fiction, for a variety of reasons, and recently tore through series by Kelly McCullough, Brian McClellan, and Django Wexler (the first two are complete, the third still in progress), all of which were excellent.