1. The theme of this one both continues the theme from the other two books—what is human and how to work with humans, respectively—but also completes and dwells on a thread running through them: autocracy is crap. This theme is both a theme on it’s own right—I do get the sense that Leckie is anti-autocracy—but it is also referencing science fiction as a whole. As Leckie herself talked about on a panel I attended at this year’s Worldcon in August, 2015, science fiction is stuck in human history by consistently retaining aristocracies, imperialism, regencies, tyranny, and other feudal and unequal methods of organization or power. After finishing, I was surprised by how closely my notes and memory from Leckie’s comments aligned with what I think she did here. Leckie really cares about science fiction and wants it to be better. And here at the end she sets down some of those tropes and clichés that people were annoyed with in the first book—and this setting down is where her theme comes out most apparently:
“Only," I pointed out, “because that had been the normal, expected state of affairs for three thousand years before you were born. You never had a reason to question it. Anaander had real power over your life and death, and no personal regard for you, or anyone else you care about. We were all of us no more than counters in her game, and she could—and did—sacrifice us when it suited her.”As you can see from the example above, which is surrounded by pages and pages where similar thoughts are echoed, Leckie does get a little too preachy for me. But I think her egalitarian theme is successful. It also completes the other themes she has running through all three books: by the end, the AIs are being considered a separate intelligent species as well—tying up the "what is human?" theme; and the theme of how to work together and compromise is completed by the negotiations with Anaander. This novel and theme really ties everything together so well.
2. While Leckie's plot allows her to get rid of some of the tropes and clichés, she takes her time setting them down, and she still uses some of them for her own purposes—uses them in new ways. But I think this is a strength of her storytelling: that she takes her time and doesn’t just drop them for the sake of disagreeing with them, instead she dismisses them in a way that makes sense in the world and story she has created. This feels honest to the work she’s already done here and, like I said before, it really ties everything off nicely. She leaves the reader uncertain about where the world is headed, but she remains character-focused throughout. So, though I am left pondering where the Provisional Republic of Eggs is headed, I am not confused about the characters. And that too shows how she stays true to her own work.
3. Leckie’s writing is still strong. I’m amazed that with such a quick publishing schedule she managed to keep the quality of the writing so high. She also had no glaring typos—none that I found at least. She is even more confident here in the third book, applying her substitutive voice to even more characters—Omaugh and Tstur stand in as the two halves of Anaander throughout. She uses dialogue questions more frequently in this book as a way to illuminate the thoughts of the characters during stressful situations:
“Who do you think you’re talking to, tyrant?” I asked. “What is there that I don’t know about obeying you? Or about human lives depending on ships and stations? And what sort of gall do you have, lecturing me about keeping human lives safe? What was it you built me to do? How well did I do it?” Anaander didn’t answer.This embracing of questions shows her growing as a writer, becoming more confident and skilled. And it isn’t the only addition to her writing techniques. She has really grown as a writer throughout the series and I think her best writing is here, in the third book. This is great, as a reader, to watch a writer grow chapter by chapter, novel by novel.
4. Leckie’s pacing in this third book is almost perfect. I’ve had minor quibbles with her other books, but here she nails it. The first one ended too quickly, the second began too slowly, and this one is a bit too long at the climax—it’s hard to stay keyed up for as long as she seems to expect the reader to be. But she doesn’t draw out the end, she doesn’t spend time on plot points that don’t progress the story, and she keeps focused on her characters.
5. In the second book, Leckie introduced a translator for the Preseger, and that was a good character: a civilian with a sense of humor and a strange outlook on the world, or understanding of it. Another translator arrives here in the third book. This character adds a good foil to the ever-serious Breq and its lieutenants. Translator creates a space to breathe a bit and even laugh at times. It helps the reader take in the more serious and stressful aspects of the story, by having the translator there. I feel like in the second book Leckie didn’t yet know what the translator could do, while in this one she realizes what benefit it adds. But it’s not a surprise—this character is planned and its addition has serious consequences for the story and the other characters. Everything Leckie does matters and feels honest to the tale, and for that, I think she is a good storyteller.
6. One problem in here is a problem present in all three that I haven’t yet talked about: the characters often speak in a similar voice. The translator is distinct, but due to the regimented language—necessary for her ideas about culture to hold water—the rest of the characters do not really speak distinctly. Sure, they’re military and some of this is due to their training and the requirements of ship-life. But even Celar and Uran, two civilians, seem to fall into the same patterns as well. And this requires Leckie to explain speakers' emotions in a way that could dangerously slow the narrative. But this is just splitting hairs because Leckie is able to evocatively explain character emotions so concisely that it ends up working almost every time. The characters share a shown voice, but Leckie is able to break them out of that voice through telling well and now, at the end of all three novels, I’m regularly guessing correctly what a character is feeling or thinking when they speak.
7. And that’s the end of the series. Leckie got better as a writer and storyteller throughout. This series makes science fiction better by skillfully thinking through so many ideas and tropes that have become ruts within the community. She expands them and uses them her own ways. However, she also includes a lot of them. This series is a character drama couched in a military space opera that involves the end of an empire. These are big science fiction threads and I’m sort of wondering if she just threw everything into it because it was her first novel series and she wanted to do it all. I wonder what her short fiction is like, what she would be like to read if she was more focused. That said, she pulls most of it off, like 90%ish. Especially here in the third book. This one will probably have my vote for the Hugo award next year. In the end, I'm excited for whatever she does next.