Saturday, 5 December 2020

Provenance by Ann Leckie | review by Stephen Theaker

Ingray Aughskold of the planet Hwae has come up with a daft plan, because she feels obliged to compete with her obnoxious brother Danach for her mother’s approval. Her mother’s affection seems entirely out of the question, but there’s still an outside chance of her selecting Ingray as the inheritor of her name, and names are important on Hwae. So the young woman comes to Tyr Siilas, and hands over everything she owns – and more besides that she has borrowed – to a criminal organisation, Gold Orchid.

She wants them to extract the notorious criminal Pahlad Budrakim from Compassionate Removal. E was left there to rot for stealing eir own family’s prestigious relics, or vestiges as they are called, and replacing them with fakes. She assumes that e knows where they are, and that once e’s out and feeling grateful enough to disclose their location, she’ll be able to use the vestiges as leverage to earn her mother the position of Prolocutor of the Third Assembly, which Ingray would hope to subsequently inherit.

Ingray knows it’s a long shot, but she doesn’t expect her plan to go off the rails quite so spectacularly or quite so quickly. Pahlad is delivered to her unconscious in a box. Captain Uisine, owner of her getaway ship, refuses to allow em on board in that condition, in case it’s a kidnapping. And once woken, the person she has rescued denies even being Pahlad. What’s more, after she manages to get em back home e becomes a suspect in a case of murder.

The author’s debut Ancillary Justice, a rare publishing success to emerge from the thousands of novels written during NaNoWriMo, was the first book to win the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards for best novel, as well as best newcomer awards from Locus, the Kitschies and the British Fantasy Awards. Knowing all that, but not having read that book or its two sequels, I was a bit surprised by how straightforward Provenance (Orbit hb, 448pp, £16.99) turned out to be. It is in the same territory as other sf adventures I’ve reviewed recently for Interzone, such as The Collapsing Empire, or going back a bit further, the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein, albeit with modern social attitudes.

One such aspect is how e is used as a personal pronoun, and everyone in the book respects its use. This isn’t explained to the reader, but eventually the book describes one of the people for whom it is used as a neman. Again, it isn’t explained whether this means non-binary, gender neutral, a third sex, or possibly something else altogether. This is science fiction, after all – and it is a fertile place to try new words out, or to popularise existing but obscure words. This is a good example of that, even if it sometimes has the effect of making it seem as if everyone’s from Yorkshire: “E said e’d searched the kitchen.”

Where the book excels is in its remarkable and thoughtful degree of thematic unity, the title Provenance being reflected throughout. Its hero is an adopted orphan of unknown origin from a public crèche, putting her at a disadvantage compared to her ambitious sibling. The provenance of the relics being fought over is in question, and there are questions about the origins of the people of Hwae themselves. The murder involves an archaeologist who wanted to investigate Hwae’s ancient ruins. And where did the friendly captain get his spaceship and spider-like mechs, which resemble so much those of the alien Geck? It’s all about provenance.

The conclusion is very tidy, almost Harry Potterish, right down to a spell in the infirmary to recover from the injuries incurred in the course of the adventure. Perhaps it’s a bit too tidy, its murder plot and surrounding shenanigans being slightly too simple to hold the reader’s attention, but the sweetness of the relationships between Ingray and her understanding and supportive allies – Captain Uisine, her Nuncle Lak, Garel Ket and romantic interest Officer Taucris Ithesta – make it a pleasant and enjoyable read.

It works fine as a standalone novel, though there is a suggestion of sequels to come: a conclave is being convened, in an attempt to keep the peace between humans, aliens and AIs with a taste for revolution, and it doesn’t take place in this book. One other unresolved issue concerns Ingray’s problems with hairpins, mentioned so frequently that it feels like heavy-handed foreshadowing, though it isn’t. Perhaps the difficulty she has keeping them in place reflects how she is for the first time striking out on her own, and struggling, metaphorically, to keep her hair straight. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #273.

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