Provenance – by Ann Leckie

After finishing the Imperial Radch trilogy, I had immediately added Provenance to my TBR, and recently I finally found myself in the right state of mind to read it. So, what is it about? How does it compare to the other books? But, most importantly, has it sated my nostalgia for Breq in any shape or form? Well, let’s see…

Title: Provenance

Author: Ann Leckie

Original Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date: 26 September 2017

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 448

Standalone or Series: Standalone (set in the world of the Imperial Radch)

Synopsis: Ingray, adopted child of a powerful politician, is desperately trying to live up to her mother’s exorbitant expectations. Hoping to impress her, she conceives an audacious but ill-advised plan that includes freeing a convicted criminal and tracking down some precious vestigiae – that is to say, historical artifacts that play a key role for her civilisation. Nothing, however, goes as expected, and her serial attempts to readjust her plan to the circumstances end up getting her entangled in the political turmoils that are tearing apart her planet, and that may escalate in an interstellar conflict.

Analysis: Ann Leckie makes use of a terse, apparently straightforward prose to give life to a complex and unfamiliar world; not only she manages to convey all required information without sounding didactic (indeed, she often lefts out superfluous explanations when we can infer from context what’s going on), she also builds enough ambience to make it feel lifelike. The story is told in third person subjective from Ingray’s perspective; since her cultural backfround is different from Breq’s, grammar and verbal habits are adjusted accordingly, as we’ll see in a second when discussing about gender and pronouns.

Provenance is set in the same universe as the original trilogy, although in a different corner of the same setting; the events we’ve witnessed to in Ancillary Mercy are here mentioned as a backdrop, and their possible consequences are one additional reason of political unrest. If the Radch has previously seemed like an almost all-encompassing force, an entity that posed itself as a synonym for civilisation, here we get acquainted with a distinct societies, all with their fundamental laws and established traditions.

Once again, the perception of gender is a distinctive feature of the worldbuilding; in the Ancillary books, Breq called everyone “she” because her society had no meaningful concept of gender identities; here, on the other hand, Ingray identifies people as women, men, or neman, calling each person with their appropriate pronouns (which for neman are e/eir/em); the novels also hints to the fact that, in Ingray’s society, gender is not assigned at birth, but claiming your identity is a part of your coming of age process; not everyone appears to be entirely happy with the three options available, but not picking any is perceived as a sign of immaturity. Now, nothing of this is essential to the plot, it is however a very welcome chance to explore the many nuances of personaly identity, and the shapes the very concept of gender could take in a distant (but still essentially human) society.

Not unlike the trilogy, the book sets expectations just to defy them: because indeed, at first we could think we’re about to read a swashbuckling heist novel, or later on a cosy mystery; not much action is portrayed, however, and the investigation is sorted out fairly quickly; the real focus of the novel is on political intrigue, as well as on a more pensive reflection on personal and societal roots. The vestigiae that set the plot in motion are seen as the key to social prestige, and while they may or may not be forgeries, the belief in their importance is still a pillar of Ingray’s civilisation. At the same time, visitors from a different planet are tracking down the origins of their culture, in what may appear like a merely academic inquiry, but actually comes with heavier political implications. And on an individual level, several characters are either estranged or have a troubled relationship with their families, and are striving to figure out their place in the world

Conclusions: Provenance is a thoughtful and lovely book, smaller in scope and ambition than the Ancillary trilogy, but still very capable to flesh out fascinating worlds and to makes us feel for its flawed but endearing protagonist.

Content Warning: Murder – Death – Violence – Toxic Family Relationship

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