By Ann Leckie
Published September 2017 (Orbit)
I love the Imperial Radch trilogy. I love it so much, that when I heard that Ann Leckie was writing a new book set in the same universe I added it to my Goodreads shelf before I learnt anything else. Then back in June I got a sample book at Supanova that contained an excerpt from the first chapter. I liked what I read, but I also felt some doubts creeping in. This story is very different from the Imperial Radch series, and protagonist Ingray is very different to Breq. Also, they use regular pronouns. With a few Spivak pronouns thrown in.
As I read through Provenance though, it became apparent I had no reason to be disappointed. Yes, we have gone from military space opera to something a bit different, but it is still a very good story. I’ve seen other reviewers call Provenance a comedy of manners in space, and I agree with that label, even though I didn’t think about it whilst reading. All I thought about this book was that it was good science fiction driven by characters and worldbuilding.
We start off with Ingray on a space station, having just spent all her money to break a convicted thief out of prison to help her retrieve valuable stolen artefacts. Rather than going on a heist or quest type story, we instead see Ingray’s plans fall apart, and each new development change the game. There were a lot of things going on, but I never found it hard to keep track of the different agendas. Leckie also avoided the trap of having Ingray be a passive player as all these different things kept happening. Most of the action was out of Ingray’s control, but she never lacked agency. When she had an opportunity to do something, she did it.
Whilst Provenance is set in the Imperial Radch series, it is not set in the Radch itself. The aftermath of the events from Ancillary Mercy are in the backdrop of this story, and in a roundabout way have influenced it (No Ancillary Mercy, no Geck aliens in this story), but they are not what this story is about. I was a bit disappointed that what was happening in the Radch didn’t play a more prominent role, as I was looking forward to seeing how things worked out there. The good part about Provenance not being a direct continuation of the Imperial Radch series is that it stands alone. However, I would still recommend reading the Imperial Radch series first, as that’ll explain the universe better. Also, Provenance references the ending of Ancillary Mercy, so reading this book first will lead to a big spoiler.
The worldbuilding here continues the high standards set in the Imperial Radch trilogy. The people in this story feel like they have their own real cultures and histories. Ingray’s people, the Hwaens, have a fascination with relics and collectables called vestiges that drives a lot of the plot. Hwaen inheritance customs also play a huge role in the story. We are also introduced to an alien race called the Geck. The Geck ambassador’s dialog was well written; it was understandable, but still felt somewhat alien to me. Leckie has only given us the briefest glance into her universe, but she makes this fantastic universe feel very real and leaves us wanting more.
I also really enjoyed Ingray as a character. She differs from most S/F female protagonists I’ve come across in that whilst she is highly competent and resilient, she is also very feminine. She wears large fancy skirts and her hair is held up by multiple hairpins throughout the story, but she never feels like a princess/girly-girl stereotype. She does feel very human, with what I feel to be realistically strong reactions to events like finding dead bodies, having a gun pointed at her, or believing she may have thrown her future away. She also had a few confidence issues to work through. Something I can relate to.
I also found it interesting comparing Ingray to Breq from Imperial Radch. Breq wasn’t human, and one of the strengths of that trilogy was how inhuman Leckie made Breq feel. Ingray meanwhile is very much human, and her humanity makes it easy to root for her as the story unfolds.
I already knew that Ann Leckie was a master storyteller. Provenance just proves to me that I need to go and read everything I can by her.