I was so excited when Ann Leckie’s new book, Provenance, arrived for me at the library. I loved her Imperial Radch Trilogy so much, and now here was a whole new book, a standalone, but taking place in the same universe and after the events of the trilogy. But I was expecting so much, that I suddenly got worried, what if it isn’t very good? I had been planning to dive in immediately but I psyched myself out and the book sat for two days. I looked at it. It looked at me.
Finally I picked it up because there was only one way to find out if I was going to like it. I was so jittery it took me 30-40 pages to calm down and let the story do its thing. Once I did that, I got sucked in fast and had a really hard time putting the book down!
Ingray is a young woman adopted into a political family. She and her adopted brother are set in competition by their mother to inherit her family title and the political power that comes along with it. Ingray doesn’t have the ruthlessness her brother does and she is pretty sure she isn’t going to win the family name. Still, she doesn’t want to be kicked out of the family either and left without a job or connections. So she hatches a plan to break a forger out of jail and use him to humiliate her brother and gain some respect from their mother.
Everything goes as planned until it doesn’t and Ingray has no idea if she even got the right man. He looks like the right guy but he insists that he isn’t and Ingray doesn’t know what to believe. Then the ship she and the ex-prisoner are to leave on is waylaid by the Gek ambassador, an alien race with much power who everyone is afraid of offending and accidentally starting a war. The ambassador insists the ship was stolen from her planet but the captain has all ownership papers in order and there is nothing that can be done.
Back on Ingray’s planet, she and the ex-prisoner hatch a plan to fool Ingray’s brother into spending a lot of money on forged vestiges. Vestiges are very important to Ingray’s people. They are items that have some sort of political or cultural significance, you could say the equivalent of a napkin on which John Lennon wrote song lyrics or a ticket to a gala where Beyonce and Jay-Z show up and have very public disagreement or the hat Lincoln was wearing that night at the theater. The plan starts off well enough but quickly goes sideways.
There is murder. There is detective work. There is romance. There is political intrigue. There is an attack by a militia from another planet and heroism and cowardice. Once it all gets going it doesn’t stop, it barrels along until the end and made my brain happy and zippy trying to figure out the mystery and the devious machinations.
What I really liked though was how well the story fit with the title. Provenance is all about origins and history as well as ownership (and records of). I got a little thrill of delight as I read when I realized how each plot element funneled into the theme. What happens when people place a high priority on origins? Vestiges become a kind of fetish and when the wealth and reputation and power of entire families are based on them there is much at stake. And when the origins of a people and culture are in question, sides form to prove and disprove and there are those who will go to great lengths to make their point. Families and individuals also have a provenance and this can have consequences both good and bad.
Leckie made a big impression in her trilogy when she decided to use the pronoun “she” as the universal pronoun. Here she is in the same world but in a different milieu and the pronouns e/eir/em proliferate. No big deal if these gender neutral pronouns were the only ones used but sometimes she uses “she” and “him” as well for the same people. So I would sometimes get distracted trying to figure out how and when Leckie was choosing to use each one. It is clear that she is making a point that different cultures and people use different pronouns and we should be conscious of what the pronouns of choice are. I am super appreciative because writers don’t do enough with this and in real life a growing number of people are letting it be known that their pronouns of choice are not our default “he” or “she.” It’s exciting in so many ways! I suspect that somewhere in the beginning of the novel Leckie explained the pronouns but it probably happened when I was still psyched out and jittery over my expectations of the book. But this is just a minor quibble really. Overall I very much enjoyed the book.
Can you read this book if you haven’t read Ancillary Justice or the rest of the trilogy? Yes, but. Like I said, this is a standalone book, however the story makes much more sense if you know the background of why everyone is worried about the Gek ambassador or why some of the gates (kind of like stable wormholes) through which ships travel long distances are no longer functional as well as what a few passing references are actually referring to. So if you’ve heard how awesome Leckie is, start with Ancillary Justice. If you have read the Imperial Radch books, do give this one a whirl. You won’t be disappointed.