Provenance

by Ann Leckie

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Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: September 2017
ISBN: 0-316-38863-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 448

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In a rather desperate attempt to please her mother, Ingray has spent every resource she has on extracting the son of a political enemy from Compassionate Removal (think life imprisonment with really good marketing). The reason: vestiges, a cultural touchstone for Ingray's native planet of Hwae. These are invitation cards, floor tiles, wall panels, or just about anything that can be confirmed to have been physically present at an important or historical moment, or in the presence of a famous figure. The person Ingray is retrieving supposedly pulled off the biggest theft of vestiges in history. If she can locate them, it would be a huge coup for her highly-placed politician mother, and the one time she would be victorious in her forced rivalry with her brother.

About the best thing that could be said for this plan is that it's audacious. The first obstacle is the arrival of the Geck on the station for a Conclave for renegotiation of the treaty with the Presger, possibly the most important thing going on in the galaxy at the moment, which strands her there without money for food. The second is that the person she has paid so much to extract from Compassionate Removal says they aren't the person she was looking for at all, and are not particularly interested in going with her to Hwae. Only a bit of creative thinking in the face of a visit from the local authorities, and the unexpected kindness of the captain from whom she booked travel, might get her home with the tatters of her plan intact. But she's clearly far out of her depth.

Provenance is set in the same universe as Ancillary Justice and its sequels, but it is not set in the empire of the Radchaai. This is another human world entirely, one with smaller and more provincial concerns. The aftermath of Ancillary Mercy is playing out in the background (so do not, on risk of serious spoilers, read the start of this book without having read the previous trilogy), but this is in no way a sequel. Neither the characters nor the plot are involved in that aftermath. It's a story told at a much smaller scale, about two political families, cut-throat maneuvering, horrible parenting, the inexplicable importance of social artifacts, the weirdness of human/alien relations, and the merits of some very unlikely allies.

Provenance is a very different type of story than Ancillary Justice, and Ingray is a very different protagonist. The shape of the plot reminded me of one of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories: hair-brained ideas, improvisation, and unlikely allies. But Ingray couldn't be more different than Miles. She starts the book overwhelmed, despairing, and not at all manic, and one spends the first part of the story feeling sorry for her and becoming quite certain that everything will go horribly wrong. The heart of this book is the parallel path Leckie takes the reader and the characters along as they discover just what Ingray's true talents and capabilities are. It's a book about being hopelessly bad at things one was pressured towards being good at, while being quietly and subtly good at the skills that let one survive a deeply dysfunctional family.

There are lots of books with very active protagonists, and a depressing number of books with passive protagonists pushed around by the plot. There are very few books that pull off the delicate characterization that Leckie manages here: a protagonist who is rather hopeless at taking charge of the plot in the way everyone wants (but doesn't particularly expect) her to, but who charts her own path through the plot in an entirely unexpected way. It's a story that grows on you. The plot rhythm never works in quite the way one expects from other books, but it builds its own logic and its own rhythm, and reached a very emotionally satisfying conclusion.

The Radchaai, or at least one Radchaai citizen, do show up eventually, providing a glimmer of outside view at the Ancillary Justice world. Even better, the Geck play a significant role. I adore Leckie's aliens: they're strange and confusing, but in a refreshingly blunt way rather than abusing gnomic utterances and incomprehensible intelligence. And the foot-stomping of the spider bot made me laugh every time.

The stakes are a lot lower here than in Ancillary Justice, and Ingray isn't the sort of character who's going to change the world. But that's okay; indeed, one of the points of this book is why and how that's okay. I won't lie: I'd love more Breq, and I hope we eventually get an exploration of the larger consequences of her story. But this is a delightful story that made me happy and has defter character work than most SF being written. Recommended, but read the Ancillary trilogy first.

One minor closing complaint, which didn't change my experience of the book but which I can't help quibbling about: I'm completely onboard with the three-gender system that Leckie uses for the Hwae (I wish more SF authors would play with social as well as technological ideas), and I think she wove it deftly into the story, but I wish she hadn't used Spivak pronouns for the third gender. (e/em/eir, for those who aren't familiar.) Any of the other gender-neutral pronouns look better to me and cause fewer problems for my involuntary proofreader. I prefer zie/zir for personal reasons, but sie/hir, zhe/zhim/zher, or even thon or per would read more smoothly. Eir is fine, but em looks like 'em and throws my brain into dialect mode and forces a re-parse, and e just looks like a typo. I know from lots of Usenet discussions of pronouns that I'm not the only one who has that reaction to Spivak. But it's a very minor nit.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-10-27

Last modified and spun 2017-11-01