Map of Blue Book Balloon

29 September 2017

Review - Provenance by Ann Leckie

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Ann Leckie
Orbit, 28 September 2017
HB, 438pp pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

To get my shameful confession done with first, I'm coming late to reading Leckie's books, having not read the Ancillary trilogy which has garnered rave reviews and prestigious awards on both sides of the Atlantic. So it was great to be able to read a new standalone book (albeit, I gather, one set in the same universe) and to see what the fuss was all about.

And indeed, the book is an imaginative tour de force featuring convincing - if at times frustrating - characters and a nuanced, shifting political background. I enjoyed the story, though at times I felt that the amount of exposition needed to keep that complex background engaged with the plot almost halted things. But that may say more about me than it does about the writing.

Provenance certainly starts off with a bang. Ingray is a young woman negotiating a deal with hard nosed traders on a far off, scuzzy space station. She's embroiled in plots and schemes, seeking personal advancement in a tough world where kids from "public creches" are given the chance to shine in the households of patrician sponsors - provided they deliver the goods for their sponsor.  The winner inherits the family name though - normally - nothing appalling happens to a loser, except for a lifetime of being an also-ran.

The hook of the story is that through most of the book Ingray knows, or believes, that she is distinctly second best at this game. The play she makes at the start goes spectacularly wrong, and plunges her into a chain reaction of, at first, damage limitation then high politics and espionage and finally, intrigue and murder, gradually raising the stakes for her (and her people) far beyond mere failure. Ingray pretty much concedes early on, assuming her rather self-satisfied step-brother, Danach, will win out. We get to meet Danach, and he isn't the nicest character in the book but the interplay between the two is very well done and there are shades of grey here - this isn't an SF version of I, Claudius, where the siblings naturally hate each other: overlaying the young woman's lack of confidence faced with her brother's invincible self-belief, there is some genuine tenderness between them, with step-mother Netano and, especially, with Nuncle Lak. (Everyone needs an Nuncle Lak!)

It is, as I said, a strong opening. Ingray seeks to lift a criminal from an oubliette world that he ought never to be able to leave and to get information  about the heist of the century - the theft of precious historical relics ("vestiges"). The role of these in Ingray's society (not the other cultures in the book, which rather despise the whole idea) is fascinating. They're central to the identity both of State/ Society - think copies of Magna Carta or Domesday Book - and of individuals and families - think copies of Auntie Anne's invitation to a Royal Garden Party, or your grandmother's first parking ticket. Many are also, fake, missing, misappropriated in order to sustain a concocted version of history, or otherwise dubious. I think there are shades here too of looted archaeological treasures.

It felt to me as though this might be the central theme of the book, and we do hear a lot about vestiges, both public and private but while important to the story, it's not really exploited much, but rather used as background. The foreground is very much politics, diplomacy and even warfare. It's here that the necessary exposition arises - who the various factions are, what their tactics and strategy might be, and what the implications are for Ingray's schemes (and her family's prestige). In these sections I found myself hoping for more, soon, about the vestiges, or about the strange ruinglass, or for a hint about why Ingray's hairpins seemed so important (there's definitely something going on with the hairpins, but I have no idea what).

Maybe I'm being unfair. A degree of - a lot of - exposition is central to SF, and there are enough well realised characters (including one who changes name several times throughout the book), species (a particularly interesting alien species, the Geck, features and I'd love to hear more about them too) and, indeed, social constructs (the gender ambiguity and fluidity, the pronouns!) to keep the book exciting and fresh. Leckie has a perfectly imaged, self consistent but very un-rigid set of societies here.

Also, the book has an explosive and satisfying ending. Leckie's in her element as she brings the threads of the story together in a tense standoff. Yes, there was also speculation between the characters about what was going on - but there is also action and when in the end it's all resolved we can judge for ourselves how right they were. This is NOT the kind of mystifying book where we don't really find out what was happening.

Overall, then, an enjoyable book albeit one which felt at times as though it needed to cut the chat a bit.

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