Adrienne Martini Reviews Provenance by Ann Leckie
Provenance, Ann Leckie (Orbit 978-0-316-38867-2, $26.00, 448pp, hc) September 2017. Cover by John Harris.
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy won more or less every genre award there is – and for good reason. The Ancillary books played with gender and civilization, while still hewing close to a space opera framework. The plot burned along and the characters felt alien, somehow, while remaining familiar.
Provenance returns to that same universe, but focuses on different part of it. This time, our hero is Ingray, a less-favored adult child who is about to buy a cryo-stored human in a box in order to boost her status with her parent. The transaction goes as well as can be expected; then, however, things get complicated.
On a macro-level, the treaty with the murderous Presger, which was brokered during the last book of the trilogy, is less iron-clad as more species decide whether or not to sign on. A conclave has been called and all of the various factions are maneuvering for leverage. Some of these plays intersect with Ingray’s plans.
And these plans, as it turns out, aren’t so much plans as barely sketched-out hopes. Once her scheme starts to fall apart, Ingray, who really doesn’t have the temperament for high-stakes games, also starts to unravel. As you’d expect in a novel, this discomfort is just the start of her journey.
Leckie is playing with some of the same ideas here that she did in the Radch books. Her take on gender involves new language – and she demonstrates how language can’t quite be translated meaningfully without also understanding the culture it came from. Leckie also explores the importance of tangible objects to cultures as a whole, as well as what happens when they cease to exist.
Where the Ancillary books were somber and somewhat removed, Provenance is much more immediate and energetic, yet it still takes a bit to really understand and care about Ingray’s plight. The story really comes alive when the other species, like the gelatinous Geck, and cultures, like the persnickety Radchaai, start to clash. That intersection is where it really feels like Leckie is in her element and having great time.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.