I want to write this post in all caps. I want to come through the computer and grab you, gentle reader, wherever you are, by the lapels and shake you and tell you that you do not have a choice, you have to and absolutely must read this book! I mean series! All of it! Ancillary Mercy for the win!
Okay, I know that I can't write the review that I want to write; this is one of those moments where I want to write a long and detailed review with elaborations on how the book worked on a technical level, and how I felt about the characters and plot, and the things it made me think about regarding society and humanity. And I would not be able to do all those things--at least not coherently in the time I have available--so I would never get it written if I tried to write the whole thing.
So what you're going to get is the rough outlines of how wonderful this book is. And then you will read it yourself (YOU WILL READ IT, YOU MUST) and then you will know how wonderful it is, forever and ever amen.
The first book in Ann Leckie's series is Ancillary Justice, which I read months ago for book club. It was good--a bit on the hard-scifi side for me, and kind of hard to follow sometimes. There's a lot going on, including two separate timelines ("present" and a 20-years-ago past), plus flashbacks to other periods and political background. That, plus the gender thing (everyone is "she" in Radch language; they don't distinguish gender) can be a bit confusing.
Ancillary Sword was the second book; I didn't write a review, because I basically downed it and Ancillary Mercy in one big gulp. It's a lot more straightforward than the first book--the politics are all set up for you, everything happens in the present, and the gender thing is really not at all confusing when Breq isn't running into non-Radch people as often.
(I'm sure there's a whole post on gender in these books, but it's taking me forever to write this as it is. In the first book, I kept trying to guess people's sex because in our culture, that has a powerful effect on the nature of interpersonal interactions. And since Breq was interacting with gendered societies in that book, that guessing served a purpose. But once we got to hang out in the Radch, where gender just plain isn't a factor, it just went away. Like, no confusion, no nothing. There's one character whom, based on the description, I was picturing as Idris Elba and my friend who had just finished it was picturing as Queen Latifah. But it doesn't matter, really, because gender has no meaning in their interactions. It's AMAZING.)
Anyway, in Sword, Breq has a ship and a mission. The first third or so of the book is her establishing herself with her new ship and crew, and us getting a real picture of how a crew functions. The rest is her arriving in the region she's supposed to protect and dealing with local politics, kicking ass and taking names.
Mercy flows right out of Sword, impeccably. I NEVER read a series of books in a row, because I hate the transition where we retreat from all the tension I'm invested in to the beginning of another book, where the tension is down and we're building a new set of tension. I find that very off-putting. No problem here--the worldbuilding carries you right through that, and she throws you a few little nuggets of "remember what's going on here" and then just keeps things rolling out. It worked really well as a seamless read.
Sword is also very much a book about local politics, while Mercy comes back to the galactic stage, bringing the Anaander Mianaai problem to the front again. And over the course of this, it examines SO MANY really huge issues through enormously satisfying fiction.
I feel like I'm going to jinx it, make it seem less awesome if I say this, but I will: Breq is a literal social justice warrior. She has an objectivism that lets her say "there is no reason at all for anyone to be oppressed besides the greed of the oppressor," and she has no tolerance for that. She dismantles these structures left and right. You get sympathetic characters on both side, and people who believe what they believe, often without consideration. Even the bad guys, almost all of them, are acting in good conscience, according to their understanding of the world. The people who act worst are those who have thought least about how others might come to feel the way they do.
You've got colonialism, social status, capitalism, oppressed ethnic groups. This is a detailed examination of every kind of privilege and what it looks like to fail at checking it. Even when you're trying--there are characters who are actively trying to be more openminded, even being a bit smug about it, who fall down at that. There are so many lovely illustrations of what it means to be truly considerate of other people.
There are so many ideas that I want to just think about and talk about here, so many nuggets that would make a whole book themselves but are just throwaway observations here.
It is possible for someone to have traits you respect and admire, but to believe in things that put those traits to the service of something abhorrent to you--and for them to do that in good faith. Conversely, it is possible for someone horrible and unkind to have beliefs that are good and respectful, and to act on them in one circumstance, even when they would act cruelly in another.
The bad guy never thinks she's the bad guy. She believes in her cause, and that what she is doing is right, in that it's more important than whatever is opposed to her.
Never confuse a system for the thing the system is meant to do. (I find this one fascinating, and I feel like it's something I think about a lot when I watch superhero shows--vigilantism vs. faith in the justice system is a big question there. But it's true; if you confuse, say, having a Department of Veteran's Affairs with taking care of veterans, you can too easily wind up in a Kafkaesque nightmare. The bureaucracy isn't the enemy, but it's supposed to be a tool; if it gets in the way of the task, it's not doing its job.)
What makes a person a person? The whole question of the humanity of an AI is almost jumped over here, since our main character is an AI and is obviously a person. But there's the bigger question of what makes a person herself? Characters are "reeducated" and ancillaries are made over to be part of a different consciousness--what does it mean to be yourself? Who are you if you are remade with other memories? Who are you if you are taken entirely out of your context?
See, the thing is that this is, for all of its huge social injustices, kind of a happy-feeling story. It's about a character who is insanely competent in every way--Breq experiences growth, especially personally, but her ability to handle people and situations (interpersonal, political, physical) is already thousands of years perfected at the beginning of the story. She handles everything perfectly. A story built around a character like that can so easily be trite, because it's just about Captain Wonderful being Wonderful.
But when you're looking at the kind of huge, empire-spanning political situations involving oppression and justice, there's no simple answer, so Breq being able to do everything right doesn't mean anything is easy. I think the ancillary question is the best example of this.
Ancillaries are made out of people, who should have autonomy--there's no way that ancillaries are just, by any definition. But ships are built so that parts of their bodies are made of ancillaries, and they're not really complete unless they have them. How is it even possible to reconcile those two situations?
Not everything has an easy answer. But that's okay, because in this book, everyone is truly, truly, doing the best they can, toward whatever their goal is.
Okay, you go read this book now. I'll close with this: if someone told me that I had to get a tattoo, no choice, I honestly think that "What Would Breq Do?" is the closest I've ever come to something I might voluntarily want on my body permanently.