Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

Provenance by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit (2017)
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Locus SF and British Science Fiction Association Awards

The Book:

”A power-driven young woman has just one chance to secure the status she craves and regain priceless lost artifacts prized by her people. She must free their thief from a prison planet from which no one has ever returned.

Ingray and her charge will return to her home world to find their planet in political turmoil, at the heart of an escalating intergalactic conflict. Together, they must make a new plan to salvage Ingray's future, her family, and her world, before they are lost to her for good.”

My Thoughts:

Provenance is set in the same universe of the Ancillary trilogy, but otherwise has very little connection to it. It doesn’t share any characters with the previous books, and it also has a much lighter tone.  The plot is full of energy and forward momentum, bouncing between many different kinds of high stakes situations (heists, murders, hostages, etc.). Somehow, all this activity comes together into a coherent story, both in terms of the plot and in terms of the repeated themes. I had a lot of fun reading it.

Interesting world-building was a highlight of the Ancillary trilogy, and this book proves that there’s plenty of room for new cultures in the same universe.  Leckie here includes the societies of Tyr, Hwae, and Omkem, as well as the alien Geck. The story mostly takes place in Hwae system, so theirs is the culture we learn the most about.  A central concern in the novel is the Hwaean obsession with physical representations of their past. This includes not just important political documents, but even things as simple as old party invitations. The importance they place on these objects seems absurd to outsiders, but historical authenticity is an important way to establish status in Hwaean culture.  In the other cultures, human and alien, there are also things that make sense within, but seem odd to outsiders. I enjoyed seeing how the different societies functioned, and seeing how they managed (or not) to deal with one another.

For me, another strength of the story was the main character, Ingray. She was a child from a “public creche” who was adopted into a prestigious family (perhaps as an act of charity).  She’s in competition with her privileged brother Danach to prove herself worthy of the family inheritance, but she doesn’t really think she’s capable of beating him. The story kicks off with her taking a huge risk in an uncharacteristically bold attempt to win her mother’s favor, and the fallout from this gamble propels the rest of the story.  I found it very easy to sympathize with Ingray’s anxiety, her self-doubt, and her tendency to become overwhelmed and panicked when things go wrong (which happens a lot). She makes a lot of missteps, but she’s also far more intelligent and resourceful than she gives herself credit for. I am a huge fan of smart protagonists and of flawed protagonists, so Ingray was exactly the sort of person I prefer to read about.

On a last note, the word Provenance essentially indicates the basic theme of the novel.  Throughout all the action and Ingray’s misadventures, the novel is interested in exploring how the past forms a link to the present, and how it helps or hinders us as we move into the future.  This plays out on the societal level in several ways, one of which is the questioning of the benefit and legitimacy of the Hwaean historical artifact traditions. On the personal level, we see this reflected in the lives of Ingray as well as a cast of several memorable minor characters.  Ingray’s self-worth is influenced by the knowledge of her “lowly” birth status, and she is also molded by the enforced competition of her family environment. Her past shapes who she has become, but she must also find a way to not allow her origins to define her future. It may be a relatively simple theme, but I think it is still a good one.  The end of the story was not entirely a surprise, but it provided a satisfying resolution for each of the characters and subplots.

My Rating: 5/5

Provenance is a new story in the universe introduced by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy.  There’s no need to have read the other books to enjoy this one, since it is a completely separate story. Provenance is somewhat lighter in atmosphere and theme than the previous trilogy, and the plot is a fast-paced adventure that barrels from one disaster to the next.  I thought it was a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed following the heroine, Ingray. I appreciated her intelligence, but also identified with her self-doubt and her difficulty staying calm in stressful situations.  I am looking forward to seeing what SF Ann Leckie will write next, and I think there are still plenty of stories that could be told in this universe. Also, it appears she has a fantasy book out as of February, which I should probably read soon...

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