Provenance – Ann Leckie ***
Ann Leckie made a big splash with her galaxy spanning Imperial Radch trilogy of books, the first of the series, Ancilliary Justice, winning Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Provenance, the author’s first standalone book outside the series is nonetheless set in the same Radchaai universe, but although political matters, conspiracies and diplomatic incidents related to the Radch and other the alien races play an important part in what occurs, the new book is not an expansive space opera, but something more of a science-fiction murder-mystery comedy.
The person who inadvertently finds themselves at the centre of a potentially major diplomatic incident is Ingray Aughskold, the foster-daughter of Netano Aughskold, a District Representative in the Third Assembly on Hwae with ambitions to rise higher to Prolocutor. Ingray is in competition with her foster-brother Danach to win the favour of her mother and be appointed her heir, but she knows her intelligent, devious brother has a much better chance of being the new Netano than she does. Ingray however has a plan.
Knowing she has everything and nothing to lose, Ingray throws all the money she has on a desperate bid to rise in her mother’s esteem. She has arranged to have her cousin Pahlad Budrakim released from ‘Compassionate Removal’ (effectively a prison where its permanent inmates are considered ‘dead’ to the world) in order to find the whereabouts of some precious artefacts, ‘vestiges’, that Pahlad was accused of stealing. Unfortunately, despite going to great expense, the agency she hired seem to have brought her the wrong man out of Compassionate Removal, but he sure looks a lot like Pahlad and knows quite a bit about forging vestiges, so maybe she can still get away with this…
It wouldn’t be fair to say much more about the details of the plot, because it’s the figuring out of how the personal and family manoeuvring fits in with the greater political developments that turns out to be the most involving element of the book. As the story develops however, Provenance becomes something of a chore in terms of its style, its uneven tone, and in how the actual thinness of plot and the inconsequentiality of its central premise of vestiges and forged mementos is stretched out far beyond any limited interest it might have held.
It is presumably intended to be humorous that a major galactic incident occurs over a cabbage bowl and a fake historical document, and there are actually many amusing incidents in Provenance. A great deal of the humour derives from Leckie’s depiction of a hitherto fairly mysterious alien race known as the Geck, who get mixed up in Ingray’s affairs when they arrive in Tyr Siilas to sign a treaty with the Radchaai. The Geck ambassador, who only appears in the form of a remotely controlled blob, is like something out of a Philip K Dick novel, imperious and demanding, but a bit flaky on manners and protocol when dealing with human and other alien races. When the Geck ambassador appears – often charging in unexpectedly – things liven up considerably.
Elsewhere however, your mileage as they say might vary in how you take to the author’s continued use of non-gender specific personal pronouns (as essential as you imagine they might be if we ever have to deal with non-binary alien species) and in whether you take to the author’s style and sense of humour. More critically the real test is in whether you find there’s enough substance in a thin story laid over a complex background of alien diplomatic affairs to merit such a long drawn out development for a conclusion that hardly reveals any real surprises.
Provenance by Ann Leckie is published by Orbit on the 28th September 2017
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum