Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

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.


6 thoughts on “Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

  1. I read it the day after it came out, and loved it. It isn’t as much with the “big ideas”, but it’s much easier to understand and it stands alone. Stand-alone books are a rare and precious thing in SF today. And it was great fun. Definitely a caper. (You left out the hostage situation!)

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    1. The hostage bit didn’t work so well for me – partly because a misplaced Kindle made me take a break with the book. It reminded me a bit of Gene Wolfe in that Ingray doesn’t really know what is happening and the events feel odd.

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  2. Just finished reading the book. Ann Leckie more and more reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold as a writer, in many very good ways.

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  3. I still find the non-standard pronouns so painful to read that I’ll give this one a pass unless it gets a Hugo nomination. I would like to see someone try to accomplish the same thing without trying to repurpose an existing pronoun (e.g. “they”) and without using irregular forms (e.g. “zie,” “zis”). For example, suppose someone used “kai.” They’d have “Kai is here.” “I gave it to kai.” “This is kai’s book.” And “Kai did it kaiself.” That is, it’s a new word, but it’s regular.

    I’m speculating that the “specific-indefinite” use of “they” fails for many people because it makes us learn new syntax and new semantics. (Note that I used a “nonspecific-indefinite they” in my paragraph above; that usage is quite old and works fine.) The other problem is that after you read a story with heavy use of specific-indefinite “they,” you do double-takes for a while every time you see “they” in the next book you read.

    I think the irregular custom pronouns fail because they place demands on semantics and morphology. Given enough time and effort, they’re probably learnable, but with no standard there’s no incentive to do that.

    Using a new but regular workd(e.g. “kai”) only requires new vocabulary and semantics–something we very easily cope with. Perhaps easily enough that it wouldn’t matter that there’s no standard. (I.e. every author could roll his or her own.)

    Anyway, if someone experimented with a story that used such a pronoun, I’d certainly give it a try. It might still fail (the deep problem is that we’re trying to add a new pronoun, but pronouns are a closed class) but it’d be worth a try.

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  4. I just finished the book and loved it. Leckie is so great at showing personality in subtle ways, instead of telling it. It doesn’t quite hit the high for me that Ancillary Justice did, but it’s still damn good, absorbing and fun. As lurkertype says, it’s a great caper story.

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