Whether you’ve read Ann Leckie’s IMPERIAL RADCH trilogy or not (though I highly recommend you do, as it’s excellent), there’s plenty to enjoy about Provenance (2017), a new and stand-alone novel set within the reaches of Radchaai space. The Empire-shifting events of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy have an effect on the political schemes in progress within Provenance, but the primary focus is on generations-old systems set deeply in place within the culture of a planet’s population. Familiarity with that trilogy will add color and flavor to certain characters and bits of dialogue, but is not a requirement.
Provenance begins with a backroom deal on Tyr Siilas station, mediated by an anonymous Facilitator between another anonymous person and a young woman, Ingray Aughskold, a fosterling from a politically-powerful family on the planet Hwae. Ingray and her foster-brother Danach have spent their entire lives in a never-ending game of one-upmanship, constantly set at odds by their foster-mother Netano, and the deal in question is Ingray’s last-ditch effort to prove that she — not Danach — is worthy of her mother’s attention and inherited title. In a nutshell, what Ingray thinks she has done is secretly freed Pahlad Budrakim, the grown child of another prominent Hwae politician from a euphemistically-titled prison, in an attempt to recover some of their culture’s most prized artifacts, which had been replaced with forgeries; to her astonishment, the person who awakes from the delivered suspension pod introduces emself as Garal Ket, a forger of said artifacts, and no connection to the Budrakims whatsoever.
At a loss, Ingray and Garal travel back to Hwae, where it is discovered that a delegation from the planet Omkem is in negotiations with Representative Netano to excavate the grounds of a beloved park; the Omkem believe that they will find definitive archaeological evidence one way or another that their societies are linked, and possibly that the Omkem population pre-dates Hwae. When the senior member of the delegation is found murdered, blame is immediately placed on Garal, and Ingray’s mission becomes exponentially more complicated as she must prove eir innocence, prove eir identity, and furthermore, prove her own worth to her family — but, most importantly, to herself.
Fans of Leckie’s IMPERIAL RADCH series will find abundant reasons to appreciate and enjoy in Provenance, as much of what made that trilogy so compelling and entertaining is evident here; from the insightful commentary on what separates or unites cultures, to a playful and skillful appreciation of linguistics, to the wheels-within-wheels structure of the plot, to the impossibly complicated puzzle-box of politics on both a galactic level and the power plays within a tightly-knit family. Anyone who’s spent an extended period of time far from home and longed for the smallest of comforts will feel instant empathy for the Radchaai ambassador’s desperate yearning for a decent cup of tea or a space captain’s blissful enjoyment of a favorite meal. Comparisons between Ursula K. LeGuin’s anthropologically-guided novels and Leckie’s work have never been more apt; Leckie’s fiction proves again and again that she understands people, both as individuals and as vital parts of a greater social organism, and she knows not only how to make those people accessible (despite being quintessentially alien, in all permutations of the term, to the reader) but also sympathetic, despite their flaws or differences.
Ingray’s journey is a fascinating one, taking her beyond stunted maturity under her mother’s shadow into spheres of influence and capability beyond what she could imagine. She’s by no means perfect, and she’s frequently caught in situations that test her limits of diplomacy and cleverness, but she’s also thoughtful and kind and intelligent, and inexorably driven to do the right thing. As she works toward trusting others and becoming a trustworthy person, her world opens up to include a diverse array of characters like Captain Tic Uisine, her childhood friend Taucris Ithesta, both the Radchaai ambassador to the Geck and the Geck Ambassador, and many more, each with their own part to play and contributions to Ingray’s development into self-assured adult.
Some of the political machinations and discussions in Provenance were a little overwhelming at times, especially since Leckie writes (and correctly so) as though her characters fully understand the world they live in, with no need for ponderous info-dumps or backstory covering thousands of years of galactic history and conquest. Salient points are addressed in dialogue or internal reflection, and the rest is left for the reader to either supply on their own or breeze through, depending on their personal inclination. The Radchaai Empire is vast and wide, encompassing and neighboring many different cultures and peoples, and their ability or inability to live in relative peace is what’s important to one’s understanding of what’s at stake, as well as the risks Ingray takes for herself and for others.
Provenance works easily as an introduction to Leckie’s talents or as a continuation of the universe she skillfully created in the IMPERIAL RADCH novels. It was a true pleasure to explore a few more corners of this galaxy, to encounter new people, and to see the continuing ripples of actions taken by Breq and Anaander Mianaai. I hope Leckie chooses to write more novels in this ever-expanding world, as there are clearly far more people and philosophies in it than I could have dreamed. Highly recommended.
Jana’s done a great job explaining what Provenance is about and some of its themes, so I’ll just mention my experience with Hachette Audio’s version of Provenance. It was narrated by Adjoa Andoh who has such a lovely voice and whose performance I adored in The Broken Land by Ian McDonald.
The first half of Provenance had me riveted as I struggled a bit to get my bearings in Leckie’s world. I’m sure this was more difficult with the audio version since I couldn’t see the words that were being used for the unfamiliar gender pronouns (it doesn’t help that I haven’t yet read the IMPERIAL RADCH novels). I enjoy this sort of challenge from a book, so I’m not at all complaining about being dumped into an unfamiliar world, but the strange pronouns in such sentences as “E had betrayed eir parent!” were sometimes tough to make sense of in audio format and it took me a while to realize that when somebody said something in “Yiir” (pronounced “ya ear”) that Yiir was a language. (Silly as it sounds, I thought somebody was talking into the ear of a person with an unknown gender.) I also found it distracting that, because Ingray cannot tell what a person’s gender is until they declare it, the person she rescued from Compassionate Removal (the euphemistically-named prison Jana refers to above), she has to keep calling “the person.” I understand and approve of what Leckie is doing here but, in audio format, where you can’t just skim over words, the words “the person” instead of the usual small gender pronouns make sentences sound clunky.
Anyway, I loved Leckie’s characters and empathized with Ingray’s desire to earn the love and respect of her foster mother. I was intrigued by her world and wanted to explore more of it. I especially loved the news mechs. The story bogged down, however, in the climactic scene and I was actually bored while Ingray was in mortal danger. Part of this was, I suspect, due to the character voices chosen by the narrator. I never felt the menace that Ingray felt from her fellow characters.
In fact, I was unhappy with several of the voices that Andoh chose to use for Leckie’s characters. She did that thing (pet peeve of mine) where she distinguished many of the characters from each other by giving them the stereotypical accents that people of certain ethnicities have when they speak English. So, one of them sounds like a Japanese person speaking English, another sounds like an Indian person speaking English, then there’s a Jamaican, etc. I find this technique distracting because I start wondering how all of these characters ended up with accents like that (they’re not speaking English in this novel) and I can’t dissociate the accent from the other cultural properties that go along with it. For example, Ingray’s mother’s brother has an Indian accent (but Ingray’s mother does not), suggesting that he is a foreigner and making me wonder if he doesn’t eat beef (though maybe nobody eats beef, but you get the point). While I understand why the narrator wants to make the characters distinct, I don’t think Leckie intended me to be assuming things about Ingray’s uncle. In addition to the cultural accents, some of Leckie’s female characters were given shrill voices that didn’t fit their personalities which, again, caused me some problems and, I think, contributed to my inability to feel the kind of threat from these characters that Ingray felt. We can’t help but make assumptions, even if unconscious, about people based on their accents and the way they talk.
I should mention that there are at this moment 52 reviews of the audiobook at Audible and they give Andoh an average of 4.8 (out of 5) stars on her performance (more than they give to Leckie’s story, actually) so perhaps I am overthinking this. (But I’m a psychologist, so I can’t help it.)
Bottom line: I enjoyed but didn’t love Provenance, and that’s partly due to the audio performance, but I did love Leckie’s world and I look forward to reading more of her work.
There was a lot I enjoyed about 2017’s Provenance, Ann Leckie’s stand-alone adventure in the Radchai Empire, and there were several things that bothered me. I thought that, once again, Leckie delivered on a story with complicated political machinations. I especially loved the culture of the people of Hwae and their passion for collecting memorabilia. The folks on Hwae are the scrapbooking champions of the universe; they all collect and display “vestiges:” post-cards from places, letters, invitations, and so on. This cultural habit becomes an important part of the plot, as the young hero Ingray Aughskold plots to “rescue” planetary vestiges from a group that is basically holding them hostage.
As for the things that bugged me, I wished Ingray’s relationship with Taucris had been given more time. While the Radchai Ambassador to the Conclave is necessary to the plot, I thought the character took up more time than necessary, and was not particularly interesting. I found the climax of the book, the hostage situation, to move slowly and lack dramatic tension. And, to my surprise, I had trouble with the pronouns this time around. That last one is on me as a reader, but I’m going to discuss it anyway.
Ingray is the fostered child of a Hwae politico, and Netano, her mother, has encouraged competition among her children because she thinks it prepares them to be politicians themselves. This has created a fierce rivalry between Ingray and her brother Danach. Provenance is a coming-of-age story in many ways, and Ingray learning to appreciate her own gifts and abilities is a big part of the plot. Part of the pleasure of this book is realizing that others around Ingray, including Netano, see her much differently than she sees herself. As Jana explained, Ingray has embarked on a wildly reckless high-stakes operation at the beginning of the book, driven by a need to best Danach. The rest of the plot flows from that action.
Netano’s brother, Ingray’s “nuncle,” is Ingray’s ally and Netano’s chief of staff. While Ingray’s immediate family uses conventional Earth-based pronouns (“he” and “she”), Nuncle Lak uses “e” and “eir.” This may be because Lak is a gender-fluid character, but I don’t know if e is. Other characters in the book use the inclusive pronouns, and I never really grasped what the convention was for them. And of course the Radchai use their single-gendered system when they show up. It was one more thing to try to ferret out, while keeping track of cultures, planets, stargates, and political power-plays, and in this book for some reason, it was just beyond me. I think that Leckie has a convention for the uses and she hewed to it; I simply couldn’t decode it.
I wished that Taucris, who is an investigator, had done some actual investigating in this book. As it is, she basically likes Ingray and brings her noodle take-out. That was a disappointment.
I loved the Geck and the android “mechs,” especially the Geck mech (yes, I did just write that!) which are close to AIs, and delightfully mysterious. I also loved the mystery on Ingray’s home world, the ruin glass. It is beautifully described and quite enigmatic. Ingray’s relationship with her brother is complex and well-drawn, and one of my favorite scenes includes a drunken Danach, Ingray, a mech, and an earth-moving device. The book has a lot to say about the power of symbols, regardless of how historically accurate they are, and a lot to say about nationalism, even if the “nation” is an entire planet.
Ingray is a likeable main character and the secondary characters are intriguing and fun. I did think the pacing was off and the long hostage stand-off lacked drama. Provenance was a good read, but I preferred the IMPERIAL RADCH trilogy.