I am in the Lake District, after a five-hour drive became a thirteen-hour drive. It was great. (It wasn’t great.) Rather than a blow-by-blow account of how this immensely tedious thing happened, this is a book review.
Provenance is Ann Leckie’s latest: a follow up to Ancillary Justice, Sword and Mercy. It’s in the same universe – and, from what I gather, set not long after Mercy – but at a different end of the universe. Ingray, our main character, is not Radchaai, neither are her friends and family, and there are no sentient AIs, either.
I have some criticisms, but I really, really like this book. Minor spoilers follow:
Okay, major criticism out of the way first: it’s weirdly paced. I was wondering if this had been written to be the first of a trilogy, which is a thing that plagues me when reading SFF- there are going to be two more books so why hurry! – and that’s why it’s such a slow start. And I’m willing to accept that a slow pace is what Leckie going for, she wants the effect that creates: but then all the things happen, very quickly at the end! And you, the reader, are a little out of breath, and may have to – as I did – go back and check you have followed everything that came before.
So with that out of the way, here’s a thing I love a lot about this book: it has significant disregard for the conventions of the genre. It starts out on a space station where our protagonist is trying to buy a suspension pod with a Mysterious Nameless Person asleep in it. (I thought of the pilot episode of Firefly, which also has this plot.) But after a couple of chapters this typical space opera opening turns into a hybrid romantic-comedy-police-procedural? Which is… great, but not what I was expecting? But no, it is great. It gives you time to get to know the characters. Ingray, the main character – we’re always in her third-person POV – is young and naïve, the potential heir to a significant political family and prone to doing big, ridiculous stupid things if it will only impress her mother, Netano (her title; we don’t learn her name).
(Netano – presumably derived from the Hindi “neta”, meaning “politician”, and unlike most Hindi nouns for jobs, gender invariable! More on gender in a minute.)
So Ingray is naïve and silly. Only, it’s not that simple. She thinks nothing of a life in the political spotlight, managing media interest, navigating diplomatic engagements, living in the constant intrigue of which of her and her sibling will be Netano’s political successor. But the reader can see it’s no mean skill and Ingray sells herself short. She has a complex relationship with her arsehole half-brother, she has a complicated and delicious relationship with an old friend who has recently named herself female, and it’s all lovingly set out. Also, it’s very funny. I think if you just read Ancillary Justice and not the follow-ups you wouldn’t know this, but Leckie has an absolute genius for irreverent comedy.
But, the space opera plot does pick up, after a while. There’s an invasion from another planetary force. There’s a lot of stuff about the Geck, some very-alien aliens who have their own complicated agenda with the Hwae (Ingray’s people). Also they’re hilarious too. The Geck ambassador in particular just wanders around assaulting people and it shouldn’t be so funny but it really is. There’s an interesting developing friendship between Ingray and Garal Ket, the nameless person in the suspension pod, that develops against a background of plots and counter-plots and running for their lives. I love all this stuff. I love that above all, It’s Complicated – it feels real. That’s also my second major criticism of the novel: it’s complicated, but it’s too complicated. The big denouement reads like a big denouement, but doesn’t feel like one, because there’s so much complex political explanation required, line by line, that it slows the action down. Similarly elsewhere in the book, you have to have characters stand up and long-windedly explain the plot to each other. I don’t think a simpler plot would sacrifice the rich texture; it might make it easier to discern.
But given all of that, the themes of the book are simple and – for me at least –extraordinarily powerful. The provenance of the title refers to vestiges: the Hwaean preoccupation with real, tangible elements of their history. Invitation cards from significant events. The specific linen and ink of their founding document of independence. If the document itself is a forgery, asks the story, does that matter? Are the words real? Is their independence real? Of course it is, but what is real? Who are we, without the physical artefacts of our history? What is our history? And who is Garal Ket, a person with no legal existence, and no name?
So that’s what it’s trying to talk about, I think, and it does it gently, in the background of what’s really a space opera frolic. And also, this didn’t fit into the rest of the review but let’s talk about gender. These characters aren’t Radchaai and they aren’t seen from that point of view, so there isn’t the lovely thing from the previous books where everyone in the universe is “she”. Instead, Ingray is a woman; her brother is a man. Ingray’s girlfriend is a woman; her friend, Garal Ket, is a neman, neither man nor woman. (Eir pronouns: e/eir/eirs.) One minor plot point is a character who is “they” – because they have not named their gender or lack thereof, which is a rite of passage that people go through in their teens or early twenties. This also has the side-effect that the two romantic relationships in the book are actively queer. Unlike the Radchaai, who don’t think gender is important, the Hwaeans and the Geck do: and their words of their relationships follow. I love Leckie’s care and attention to this stuff, and I also adore that this is not explained in text. You figure it out. It’s important, but it’s not that important.
And it does tie into the theme, in its way – Taucris, the character mentioned above, is nameless before the naming of her gender. In the eyes of her people she is a child. She could declare she has no gender, but she needs to declare it. (I’d be interested to know what genderfluid people would do in this culture; I presume they would name that, and their pronouns would shift accordingly. It’s also not clear if you can decide you want to be known differently later in life. I hope that comes out in future books.)
In conclusion: it’s good. I liked it. I read it in uncorrected proof in which pages 35-40 were in the wrong order; it comes out on 26 September.