Book 3 of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, featuring corpse soldier (ancillary) Breq, sort-of/kind-of/not completely concludes the tale of Breq’s quest for justice. In Book 1, Leckie sets up her Radch Empire and Breq’s background — how she went from being the artificial intelligence of an imperial ship, serving her captain and able to see and know all through her ancillaries, to being an isolated and separate individual with the formidable strength of an ancillary and a powerful desire for revenge. In Book 2, the Radch Emperor Anaander Mianaai has given Breq Fleet Commander status and the ship Mercy of Kalr. Breq and her crew travel to the remote Athoek Station where Breq has a personal mission to accomplish, but Anaander Mianaai has one as well. In fact, as we learned in Book 1, Anaander has conflicting missions; the Lord of the Radch, as she is known, has countless forms that she uses across her empire to maintain surveillance and control, but she is a body divided against herself. One Anaander, the one whom Breq has met, wishes to stop imperial expansion and the use of ancillaries and to promote able citizens to positions of authority. The other Anaander wishes to continue annexations, use ancillaries and rely on old noble families for ruling. While Athoek Station may have seemed a minor outpost, we learn in Book 3 that both Anaanders have an interest there and that a battle is in the offing.
While themes in Book 1 focused on politics and in Book 2 focused on class inequalities, Book 3’s overriding focus is on interpersonal relationships and humanity, or respect, if you will. Mercy of Kalr‘s crew is solely human other than Breq and the ship’s artificial intelligence (AI), which is simply called Ship. Ship, like all ships and like stations such as Athoek, communicates with its captain and crew at its discretion and at their request. We know from book one that ships obey their captains, but sometimes ships actually love their captains, feel a connection to those whom they serve. Breq felt just such a connection to Lt. Awn when she was the AI of the ship called Justice of Toren. But, ships don’t love other ships, and Ship knows that Breq is/was Justice of Toren. In fact, Breq has revealed to her crew that she is an ancillary, and this seems to complicate her relationships with them. They are loyal to her and admire her, but they know that she is able to see much more of them — their feelings, emotions, etc. — than a human captain would. Meanwhile, Lt. Seivarden continues to battle her addictions and her insufferable arrogance, and Lt. Tisarwat faces her own internal struggles as she comes to terms with the damage that Anaander Mianaai has done to her — damage that causes her physical and emotional distress, stokes her ambitions, and gives her certain advantages known only to Breq.
While Fleet Commander Breq’s involvement in affairs on Athoek Station in Book 2 had won her many admirers there, trouble arises when Anaander (the one who has not met Breq and who favors annexations) enters the system and reveals to all at the station that Breq is an ancillary and an enemy of the empire. Breq and crew have to escape the station and try to hide while they work out a plan for their next move. Breq makes it clear to Tisarwat and others that she is not loyal to either of the Anaanders and would be happy for both to be destroyed. So what is it that Breq wants? It is not wanton destruction. As it turns out, Breq and other AIs (several are involved in this plot) embody Asimov’s laws of robotics, in particular the “zeroth” law — that robots (AI) may not harm humanity through action or inaction. The problem is that since those AIs have been created and put into action by Anaander, they are programmed to obey her; this has been complicated by the fact that there are at least two minds of Anaander who may have each tried to program the AIs to their specifications. Breq knows how a ship feels when it is programmed to follow conflicting orders, orders that cause harm to humans. Her goal has to do with autonomy, respect and a recognition of the “significance” of artificial intelligence. The concept of “significance” is especially important to the powerful and ruthless people known as the Presger, with whom the Radch have a treaty.
At the end of this book, some of the issues from Books 1 and 2 are resolved, but it is not clear what will happen with the Anaanders or the empire. One of the quibbles I have with the series is that, if this is where it ends, much has been left unresolved. Leckie does sometimes throw out information to readers that seems significant but doesn’t go anywhere. For example, it is suggested several times that there might even be three competing Anaanders, but this is never explained or developed. Also, something called the Itran Tetrarchy seems significant. We know from Book 1 that the Itran Tetrarchy provided Breq with money and an unusual icon for reasons never explained, and that icon comes up again in Book 3. I searched through the three books of this series to see if I had missed some important explanation, but it turns out Leckie explains more about the tetrarchy in a short story she wrote called “She Commands Me and I Obey. I found it online and it is an interesting story that did help somewhat in understanding Breq. I wonder why it wasn’t included in the novels. I did read that Leckie is planning a fourth novel set in the Radch Empire, so perhaps all of these issues will be resolved later.
On the whole, Ancillary Mercy was every bit as entertaining and thrilling as Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. Breq, for a corpse with artificial intelligence, possesses an understanding and morality that most humans lack. She is a remarkable hero and I can only hope we will read more about her soon.