Provenance by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Provenance takes place in the same universe as Ann Leckie’s Radchaai trilogy, the first of which (Ancillary Justice) won a Hugo, and which I loved. The events of Provenance take place shortly after the events of the trilogy, but don’t involve any of the same characters (or even locales) so each can stand on its own (though comparisons between the two are inevitable).
The story follows Ingray Aughskold, a young woman who is trying to prove to her mother that she - rather than her brother Danach - deserves to inherit her mother’s name. Ingray’s scheme immediately goes awry, she finds herself responsible for a person who shouldn’t exist (named Garal Ket), and her ride home accidentally draws attention from the ambassador of the alien Geck. Once home, she finds herself in the center of a tangle of local, inter-planetary, and inter-species politics that (she believes) she is ill-equipped to handle.
Much is made of Ingray’s hand-wringing and self-doubt, but this is one of those novels where it is clear to the reader (and several other characters) that the very flaws that the protagonist agonizes over are those qualities which make her the perfect fit for the job. It’s too clear, in fact. Ingray reminded me of Mia from The Princess Diaries; her misfit status and trusting nature are what endear her to everyone and make her a natural leader.
This is a perfectly fine novel, and if not for the inevitable comparison to the Radch Trilogy, I don’t know if I’d take issue with Ingray or any of the other unsubtleties. But once of the things that made the Radch Trilogy excellent, to me, was the subtlety and nuance of the characters. The characters acted and spoke in a way that belied a thoughtful underlying psyche, and the story was anchored to the internal struggles and changes of the characters, yet Leckie avoided slicing the characters open and revealing the detailed minutiae of every why and what and how of every change. It was confusing; it took me a while to really get what Leckie was doing in Ancillary Mercy. But it was rewarding. Provenance, though, has characters helpfully vocalize the qualities and traits and reasoning behind each action and decision. I enjoy a good character-driven novel, and Leckie is an excellent writer and the story and characters were delightful, so the heavy-handedness doesn’t make it a bad story, just lands it solidly in the ‘very good’ and not ‘excellent’ tier.
A more generous reading might be that the difference is intentional, and reflects the different cultures at the forefront of each story. The Radchaai have many taboos and strict social hierarchies while the Hwae are very much about public performative gestures. I could be convinced this was Leckie’s intent but it would take some strong evidence.
Leckie does a good job of growing her universe, making it wider and still recognizable. The Radchaai ambassador to the Geck is one of my favorite characters (think Mindy St. James from The Good Place but less horrible) and is the most significant reminder of the Radch Trilogy. The Hwae are a solid addition to the universe, a planet that values “vestiges” of significant cultural events. The story stumbles for me when I’m expected to believe that next to no one on the planet has ever questioned the authenticity of any of the vestiges; it felt like a moment where natural worldbuilding was sacrificed to the necessity of the plot. (And perhaps it’s just my own reading, but it felt a touch on-the-nose to talk about these monuments to culture that are are powerful symbols that are essentially valueless beyond what people see in them, in light of recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments in the U.S.)
Despite it being a few steps away from ‘excellent,’ I appreciated the themes the novel tackles. Ingray’s trust, which is read as naivete by some characters, is her strength, and I enjoy stories where trust is valuable and rewarded. In such a world, choices matter, and people are trusted when they make choices that are right for them. Here we see some of the subtlety I loved in the Radchaai trilogy; characters make personal and interpersonal choices that are treated with gravity and respect by other characters. The protagonists recognize the importance of not necessarily unquestioning, but unconditional support once these personal decisions are made. It’s radical in a soft, comforting way.
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