We are back to the universe of the Radch, new pronouns and strange aliens. Provenance is set shortly after the events of Ancillary Mercy but the tumultuous events of that book are a minor background to this new stand-alone novel (i.e. you needn’t have read the Ancillary books).
Ingray is the adopted child of a high ranking family of the Hwae system. Now a young adult (I think) she has been brought up to compete directly with her brother to win the privilege of being named their parent’s heir – an event which would lead one of them to adopt a new name and gain both wealth, status and political responsibility.
The people of Hwae (or at least the high-ranking ones) obsess over social status in a way that the Radch obsesses over rank (and tea). Central to this cult-like obsession is the veneration of ‘vestiges’ – artifacts that demonstrate the age of a family and possible connections to historical events. Vestiges can be anything from physical objects to letters and postcards or ticket stubs.
When we first meet Ingray she is off planet, embroiled in a scheme that is within her cognitive capacity to execute but for which she is not temperamentally prepared. As events unfold, a prison break, stolen spaceships, a murder of foreign dignitary and an invasion plot unfold around Ingray in a story that has elements of a mad-cap caper along side space-opera and Leckie’s trademark examination of the potential variety of human culture.
Above all Ingray is an honest person caught in a story in which most people she meets (both the good and the bad) are liars. This is such a clever trick by Leckie, as she manages to encapsulate Ingray very quickly as a character very early in the book, while giving her a backstory that gives her reasons to attempt a devious scheme (returning a notorious exiled criminal/disgraced vestige keeper to Hwae to embarrass her parent’s political rival). Ingray’s basic niceness wins her some useful allies and her naturally bravery pushes her further into the events.
Despite one murder and a potential war, this is a much lighter book than the Ancillary/Imperial Radch trilogy. Of the three books it reminded me most of Ancillary Mercy which also featured some aristocratic planetary shenanigans and also gave us insight into a different somewhat parochial future human culture.
I didn’t find it overall as compelling as Ancillary Justice and I think I preferred the higher stakes and darker tone of Breq’s world but Provenance also feels more self-confident to be its own thing.