Ancillary Mercy, the final volume of Ann Leckie's outstanding Imperial Radch trilogy, is a satisfying and fitting conclusion - which is ironic, considering that the story ends in many ways in media res. What makes this somewhat risky choice work perfectly is that Breq's story has always been only a small fragment of the vast web of narratives that the revisioning of a galaxy-spanning empire would require.
The thing to deal with in trying to talk about any of these books is how much is packed into them, at so many levels. The structure of the book itself is a metacommentary on the role of the individual in the history of nations, on the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the fall of empires and the agency of heroes in those falls. No man - or being - can command the future, I once heard said. But I have also heard that pebbles can become an avalanche. (Quotes from other space operas seem appropriate to what is, after all, a story about a ship who sang.)
Realistically speaking, Breq - or any heroic protagonist - could never bring down an empire the numbers hundreds of solar systems and has lasted for thousands of years by herself, or even with the help of assorted other beings, human, AI, and alien. But she can and does upset the imperial project in a small corner of the gameboard, and what she manages to achieve (with the help of those other beings) may last long enough to spread.
And speaking of AIs, another major theme of Ancillary Mercy - indeed, of the entire trilogy, but brought to a climax here - is the agency and personhood of created intelligences such as Breq and the other ships. After three volumes of listening to Breq's inner thoughts, and observing her interactions with various other AIs, it's clear to the reader what the resolution should be, though the novel ends without a formal settlement of the argument. There's a delightful exchange, however, between Anaander and a representative of the powerful alien species the Presger, whose ultimate decision on the matter will have a significant effect on the future of the Radch - or what follows it. Anaander is arguing that the AIs cannot be Significant Beings - the Presgar term for a species whose group agency allows them to be participants in interstellar treaties and negotiations - because humans have created them. The Presgar representative responds “I’m given to understand that most, if not all, humans are built by other humans."
Ancillary Mercy also carries forward other themes from the previous volumes : the examination of the effects of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and cultural assimilation on conquered peoples, and the exploration of the meaning of justice and how it may be incorporated into daily lives as well as into overarching social movements and structures. The text provides instance after instance of incidents of subtle (and not so subtle) abuses of power, in interpersonal relationships, in class and colonial interactions, in policing of protest actions, and explores the just - and merciful - way of resolving them through Breq's eyes and developing conscience.
Then there is the whole issue of disability awareness, which had been a running theme throughout the trilogy. There is Breq, who has lost so many of her selves, her former abilities, and who is injured beyond the possibility of full recovery in the first novel when she saves Seivarden's life (she lives with constant pain in one leg from that point on) and who in the third volume is once more injured and spends signficant tine dealing with a temporary prosthetic. There is Seivarden, struggling with drug addiction. And there is Tisarwat, the survivor of a shattering mental trauma, who requires medication to function effectively.
These disability issues are themselves a part of a larger theme of loss, recovery and adaptation - loss of self, loss of place, loss of autonomy, loss of loved ones, loss of cultural identity, loss of trust, loss of personal integrity, and on and on. And yet, most of these characters recover in some fashion and find ways to move on, always bearing the marks of loss but learning ways to cope, to function, and perhaps, from time to time, to transcend.
And of course, there is the choice to avoid gender distinction. When I consider how the lack of gender has influenced my interpretation of the work, I'm reminded of some of the analysis that's been done around the topic of cisgendered heterosexual women who write and read both romance and porn based on same-sex relationships between men. The theory argues that this enables women to explore the emotional dynamics of a relationship without gendered power differentials. That, in a way, is what the lack of gendering in these books has done for me - it makes it possible to consider all these themes - agency, personhood, loss and coping, just and merciful action in personal and public spheres - as human issues, not gendered ones, to see the commonalities in how we as humans do, and could, respond.
And of course, it's a space opera. It's exciting, engaging, entertaining storytelling at its best. There's intrigue, and action, and military encounters and political entanglements and danger and heroism and all that great story material, well organised and presented. There's heroes and villains and all sorts of in-between folks, all multi-faceted and fully realised characters. There's danger, and humour, and tragedy, and triumph, and duty, and hope and even love. Quite simply, there's all you could really want, and it's done very, very well.