Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit (2015)
Series: Book 3 of the Imperial Radch
Awards Won: Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Hugo Awards

The Book:

For a moment, things seem to be under control for the soldier known as Breq. Then a search of Athoek Station's slums turns up someone who shouldn't exist - someone who might be an ancillary from a ship that's been hiding beyond the empire's reach for three thousand years. Meanwhile, a messenger from the alien and mysterious Presger empire arrives - as does Breq's enemy, the divided and quite possibly insane Anaander Mianaai, ruler of an empire at war with itself.

Anaander is heavily armed and extremely unhappy with Breq. She could take her ship and crew and flee, but that would leave everyone at Athoek in terrible danger. Breq has a desperate plan. The odds aren't good, but that's never stopped her before.”

This is the conclusion of the Imperial Radch trilogy, and I would strongly recommend reading the series in order (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy). I would also particularly suggest reading the last two in quick succession.  The third novel picks up right after the second, and my year gap in reading left me scrambling to remember who everyone was and what was going on.  It would have been a much smoother transition if I’d read Ancillary Sword more recently.

My Thoughts:

Ancillary Justice had an epic scope, as we followed the starship-turned-individual Breq in her quest to avenge her grief on the multi-bodied leader of a galactic empire.  Ancillary Sword shifted to a smaller and more personal scale, as Breq took a new spaceship to the backwater Athoek Station in search of her beloved Lieutenant Awn’s sister.  I had expected that Ancillary Mercy would shift back to the broader stage of the galaxy, but Breq and her crewmen remain with Athoek Station to the end.  Many of the questions and problems brought up in Ancillary Sword are resolved, but there is very little conclusion regarding the wider political concerns from Ancillary Justice. Anaander Miaanai’s civil war and the fragile treaty with the alien Presger both come into play in some sense, but it turns out that neither is really the focus of the trilogy.

Instead, I see now that the trilogy is more concerned with ideas of personhood, identity and relationships.  The three books chronicle Breq’s journey from being a starship’s ancillary to accepting that she is a person in her own right.  Even after the events of the first novel, Breq is convinced that she is a replaceable object, and expresses discomfort with accepting the captaincy of another AI-starship, a role she believes a person should have. In line with this, Breq’s narrative generally focuses heavily on the people around her, often neglecting her own feelings and reactions.  Despite her self-negation, Breq actually does have a strong and charismatic personality, and I enjoyed watching her progress in self-awareness and in finding a place where she truly belongs.  

While the novel involves some excitement and action in the struggle against the Anaander Miaanai that comes to Athoek, much of the story focuses on quieter character moments. Two new characters are also introduced that serve mostly as comic relief, a cranky ancillary of the ancient ship Sphene and the absurdly clueless new Presger translator. Seivarden plays a larger role in this installment, and we see her forced to confront her arrogance, her addictions, and the mental and emotional instability that she has been patching up through her loyalty to Breq.  Tisarwat’s arc is more concerned with her coming to terms with her own identity, and the fact that it has been heavily influenced by Anaander.  The various other AI in the system all have personalities that are somewhat similar (as they are programmed to take a deep and abiding concern for the well-being of ‘their people’), but it was interesting to think how the events of the story might change them.  This was not really the kind of conclusion I expected for this trilogy, but I enjoyed reading about the characters I have come to love.  There is so much left unresolved, though, that I hope Leckie returns to this universe again in the future.

My Rating: 4/5

Ancillary Mercy, the conclusion of the Imperial Radch trilogy, retains the tighter focus of the trilogy’s middle novel.  While many of the questions of Ancillary Sword are addressed, the trilogy leaves some of the larger-scale concerns of Ancillary Justice unresolved.  Instead, the novel focuses on events at Athoek station, as well as the personal development of Breq and her troubled officers.  It was satisfying to see Breq maneuvering against an Anaander Miaanai again, but the novel ends before we get to see the longer-term consequences of her interesting decisions in this confrontation.  While this does close out the trilogy, I hope that this is not the last novel about the Imperial Radch.   

Friday, November 25, 2016

Short Fiction: August & September 2016

It’s time for a look at a few of my favorites out of the science fiction and fantasy short fiction works that have been recently published.  I rely on Rocket Stack Rank to provide me with a monthly list of stories to read, and I also have a subscription with the Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.  This is my first year keeping a close look at short fiction, so I’m hoping to branch out to subscriptions with additional magazines (such as Asimov’s or Analog) in the future.

Today, I will discuss stories published in August and September of this year.  As usual, I will provide links for the stories that are available for free online.     

Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus by Jeremiah Tolbert (Novelette, Lightspeed): This is the story of a clandestine food truck gathering of chefs that explore bizarre experimental cooking.  The creativity of the foods were a highlight of the story, and it was interesting how each dish danced along the line between delicious and disturbing.  I, like the main character, really enjoy imaginative food, so I had a lot of fun reading this speculative foodie fiction.

The Voice in the Cornfield, The Word Made Flesh by Desirina Boskovich (Short Story, Fantasy & Science Fiction): This one was a quiet, emotional story about an alien that crash-lands near a Mennonite community.  Few people notice the alien’s silent pain as it lies there, slowly dying, except for several women who are also suffering.  Boskovich writes from her experience of living in a Mennonite community, and she shows the cruelty and suffering that can lie just below a peaceful surface.  
The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello by David Gerrold (Novella, Fantasy & Science Fiction): This is a sequel to Theodore Sturgeon’s “Mr. Costello, Hero”, which I have not read.  However, “The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello” still stands alone as a very entertaining novella.  The story is from the perspective of a protagonist with a dark past who has joined a farming/ranching family on an alien planet.  One day, a smooth-talking fellow shows up and claims to have a plan to turn a certain violent, unruly local animal into livestock.  This sort of thing has cost many idiots their lives in the past, but what would it mean for their world if he succeeds?  I love Gerrold’s writing style, and how vividly he describes this world, the local ecosystem, and the human society that thrives there.   

A Deeper Green by Samantha Murray (Novelette, Beyond Ceaseless Skies): In this story of a struggling human colony on an alien planet, Juvianna has the ability to enter and alter people’s minds.  In her community, her skill is traditionally used to eradicate the memories of a crime and the feelings that led to it.  In this way, the community does not lose criminals as useful members of society.  With such a powerful gift, some people inevitably have different ideas of how it should be used.  Juvianna must balance her responsibility to her community and loved ones with her own sense of morality. Her gift was a very interesting concept, and I appreciated how the story explored its possibilities for personal and communal help and harm.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Read-Along: Kushiel's Mercy by Jacqueline Cary [END]

Welcome to the seventh and final post in the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Mercy, the sixth book of the Kushiel’s Legacy series and the final book of Imriel’s trilogy. This week’s questions cover chapter 76 through the end and are provided by Susan of Dab of Darkness, so beware of spoilers for the full first six books of Kushiel’s Legacy below.

1) We talked last week a bit about the charm Imriel put on Sidonie so she could maintain her own will. Did it work as well as you expected? Less or more? Is there anything more they could have done with these charms?

I think it worked better than I expected.  Maybe it was because she settled very slowly into the spell, due to the charm, but she never fully lost herself.  The two of them would have failed in the end, if she had.  I don’t blame Kratos, he couldn’t have watched her every second of every day.

I wondered if Kratos could have quietly sedated her for a while, so Imriel could have snuck in and redone the charms.  I don’t know if that would have worked, though, or if it only worked because the charm was in place before she set foot on Terre d’Ange soil.  In any case, that would have been very hard to pull off without being caught.  There’s no telling what they would have done if it seemed like Imriel was endangering Sidonie, since we saw how easily people turned against him.

2) Mavros as part of the Queen's Guard! Was that a surprise to you? Were you surprised by any other characters in this weird, corrupted version of the City of Elua?

I did not expect that at all.  Thinking about it, Mavros is extremely loyal to his family.  Maybe that is the seed that the spell built on?  I’m so used to seeing him as an excitable flirt that he seemed like a totally different person.  Beyond the weirdness of Mavros, I wasn’t shocked any more than I was over the people we saw in the previous section.

3) In a desperate moment, Imriel seems to be filled with the light of the 13, or at least Elua, until he's knocked out. Do you think it was Elua answering his prayers sideways?

I think it was definitely divine influence.  Imriel seems to think it was so he would be knocked out and carried to that particular bed, where he would be in a position to see the pattern on the gem-painting of the oak tree.  That seems extremely convoluted, but it’s possible.  It seems like Elua and his Companions do not generally solve problems for their descendents, but instead set up situations where those loyal to them will be able to get what they need to solve the problems themselves.  

4) We have a few desperate moments once the location of the gem is revealed to Imriel - his duel with Joscelin, his ride to the square, his scramble up the tree, his taking hold of Sidonie, and the breaking of the spell, the appearance of the demon. What did you like most about these moments? Anything you didn't like?

I was so scared that Joscelin was going to kill Kratos, especially after he stabbed him.  I wasn’t sure at first how Imriel would get past him, either, since Joscelin was more skilled than both of them put together.  It was a very clever but risky move to charge him barehanded.  With Sidonie, it’s lucky she’s so good with pronunciation.  That would have been horrible if they failed simply because no one could get the vowels or the emphasis quite right.  I would say what I liked the most was that Sidonie was able to keep hold of herself just enough to help end the spell.  

5) Terre D'Ange is at peace. What reconciliations stood out to you?

I am glad Imriel convinced Ysandre that she had to face the people she had wronged.  I don’t feel like the reconciliation would have gone as well if Ysandre and Drustan had just stayed hidden away and let Sidonie handle it.  I also was not expecting Hyacinthe to be there, when Alais and Barquiel came to the city.  

6) Finally, we have a wedding. Perfect ending to the trilogy? Need something more? Any final questions that you want answered?

I like that Imriel’s trilogy ends with a party, as did Phedre’s, and that we got a quick reminder of all the characters we’ve grown to love along the way!  I especially like that Hyacinthe sees happiness in Imriel’s future.  I don’t think I really have any more questions that need answers.

Other Stuff:

--I like Sidonie’s tattoo.  She changed the scar into a badge of honor, and I agree that it is not irreverent for her to carry a kind of Mark of Naamah after all that she’s done.

--I am skeptical of their amazing stamina, to be still alert and awake after a wedding celebration that lasted almost to sunrise.  The style of wedding seems quite French, but those kinds of weddings wear me out.  I guess some people are just really energized by extremely long parties?

--Finally, we saw some pushback over Imriel’s idea of “women”! It was a nice touch that Sidonie had no interest in planning her wedding.

--Alais is very clever.  If Breidaia agrees, she has resolved all the problems between Alba and Terre d’Ange, and also contrived to have a certain Conor nearby ;).

--I appreciate that even after the events of this book, Imriel still thinks often of Dorelei.

--It turns out Ysandre did abdicate after realizing all that she had done, but I’m glad Sidonie refused the throne.  As much as I dislike Ysandre’s decisions sometimes, it would have been a terrible way for a generally good reign to end.