Ann Leckie
Provenance Cover



Ann Leckie had a tough act to follow with this novel, her first since the mind blowingly excellent Imperial Radch trilogy. I'm happy to report that Provenance, while a very different book, did not disappoint me at all, with fantastic worldbuilding and compelling characters packed into a highly enjoyable plot which kept me engaged right to the end.

I feel like the biggest factor for Provenance's success for me was the main character, Ingray. Ingray is the young adult daughter of one of Hwae's most pre-eminent politicians. Like many people on Hwae, Ingray was fostered at a young age, but unlike most with her upbringing, she comes not from another wealthy family but from a "public creche": a fact which she is constantly cognisant of, and which makes her relationship with her rather manipulative mother considerably more fraught. To further complicate matters, Ingray's mother has explicitly put her into competition with her more privileged and obnoxious brother, Danach, for inheritance - a fight Ingray is already sure she will lose, but feels she needs to pull out all the stops to succeed at. The last of these "stops" kicks off the novel's plot, as Ingray travels to another system to recover another Hwaean called Pahlad Budrakim, who she has paid to have broken out of "compassionate removal" (i.e. a dystopian inescapable prison planet) in order to obtain information about the location of priceless artefacts ("vestiges") belonging to her mother's political rival. (It's worth noting that Palahd is also neither male or female, using "e - em - eir" pronouns: Hwaean culture explicitly recognises three genders for adults, which children choose when they come of age).

It's clear within the first chapter that things are not going to go to plan for Ingray, and, unusually for a science fiction hero, she spends a lot of time barely keeping it together as things go off-script, flailing around before coming up with a plan which usually fits the situation and her resources - only to have the wider situation change around her, or someone not react totally as expected, putting her back into the fall apart and flail phase for a while. She's smart without being sharp; demonstrably good at building alliances and making friends even in the most unlikely of places despite not being particularly skilled at reading the people around her, and she has a deeply flawed view of success and competence from her parent and brother which takes her a long time to recognise. The best part is that other characters are not just happy to allow this, but clearly value her strengths despite the fact she's not the flawless five-dimensional chess player we often expect protagonists to be. Admittedly, this makes Provenance's plot more reactive than proactive at times - while Ingray is usually trying to do something, it's more often off-stage machinations between different players which drive events - but in terms of a realistic portrayal of a young woman interacting with much larger political forces, it really resonated with me.

Moreover, while Provenance doesn't have the same intensity that Ancillary Justice, in particular, brings to its plot, there's still a lot at stake here beyond Ingray's personal future: the cultural identity of the Hwaeans, their relationship with their neighbours, and the relationship between humanity in general and an alien species, the Geck, whose ambassador follows the ship Ingray takes back to Hwae for rather alien - but ultimately very recognisable - reasons. It's almost impossible to describe how these pieces fit together without diving into a lengthy retelling of the plot, which I won't do (because you should read the book), but suffice to say that I am in awe of Leckie's worldbuilding abilities, which handles the background politics brilliantly. By setting the novel outside the ostensibly homogenous Radch, Leckie has more space to explicitly develop several more or less alien cultures while linking everything to factors we can recognise in our own world - privilege and upbringing, family relationships, the way we build histories and myths and how we ascribe values to particular narratives (or objects), and the difference between doing what's legal and doing what's right. There are also a lot of spider robots, because it's 2017 (2018 now) and Spiders are In.

An extra gush (Ancillary Gush?) is due to the audiobook narrator, Adjoa Andoh - who has apparently done the audiobooks for all Ann Leckie's books so far - who brings the characters to life so well, and in particular does Danach with a Yorkshire accent which is bizarre and yet so perfect, all of our superior arsehole rich kid space brothers should be from Yorkshire, accept no substitutes, etc. Seriously, well worth picking this up in audiobook form - or in any form at all. A wonderful book.

Rating: 9 historically relevant invitation cards out of 10