Orbit | 2017 (28 September) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
Ingray Aughksold has something to prove. Her mother Natano, an important politician on the planet of Hwae, adopted Ingray years ago, also adopting Danach. But only one of them can inherit Natano’s name and influence. Danach, a man who can charm as well as he can sulk, is easier to like and so Ingray is convinced that he will be the chosen one. Unless she can do something spectacular. And so Ingray steals someone, Pahlad Budrakim, from Compassionate Removal, a truly dreadful prison for those destined to become the unliving and the forgotten. Pahlad is suspected of stealing vestiges, Hwae’s most prized and symbolic historic relics from the early years of its settlement. Handing him over along with instructions on how to recover these treasures will lift Ingray in her mother’s estimations and do rather the opposite for Danach – no bad thing at all.
Unfortunately Pahlad, when she gets him aboard the starship (owned by the most unusual captain) bound for home, insists that he is not Pahlad at all! And to complicate matters a major conference is just about to take place that holds the future of humanity – and a fair few other species – in its hands. As ambassadors make their way to the conference, mostly via Hwae, the authorities, including Natano, are getting twitchy. Ingray has picked the wrong time to draw all this attention to herself.
Provenance is a standalone novel that takes place in the same Radch universe, although at a later date, as Ann Leckie’s award-winning Ancillary Justice series. Some elements of the novel will be familiarly unfamiliar – the nemans, the other gender, who use e and eir and em for their pronouns. There is also the pleasing disregard for sexual and gender stereotypes. But otherwise I found Provenance quite different in its style and tone.
Provenance is a lighter tale. As well as being less dark, it’s also arguably more accessible and comfortable. The risk to humanity that hovers around the edges is real and menacing but it doesn’t form the main subject of the novel. The story instead hovers around the loss of the vestiges and the murder of a representative from the planet of Omkem. But with the interference of other species, especially the brilliantly unusual Geck, there’s a strong sense that civilisation is barely holding itself together.
I absolutely loved all the wordbuilding and details – the spaceships, the food, the intriguing ruinous glass on which Hwae is built, and the clothing. I wanted much, much more of this. Ingray clearly dresses elaborately and her hair is held back in unruly braids with hairpins that she constantly loses. I wanted to know more about the background to this. The culture and society are elaborate and we get hints of that, especially in the ways that adoption and becoming an adult work but I wanted more. And the history of the vestiges. What is all that about? This is such a rich universe and there is room in Provenance to mine it much more deeply. I also wanted to take a trip to the Geck planet. How amazing that place must be. And then there’s the mechs. I expected this strand of the story to develop much more than it did. And I really wanted to know more about the conference and the horrible alien threat.
Provenance promises so much and its ideas are spellbinding. But its emphasis throughout is on discussion. Everything is talked to death and this holds up the action and also risks the fascinating becoming dull. The last third picks up when events come to a head but, again, there is endless talk.
Luckily, though, we have the character of Ingray who is marvellous and it’s for her – and the rather strange captain – that I persevered until the end of the book. Ann Leckie has such vision and I loved the novel’s tantalising glimpses of it but on the whole I found Provenance equally frustrating and intriguing.