I enjoyed reading Provenance, but after I put it down the question whether this really was a good book quickly took my enjoyment hostage. As entertainment it works just fine: others have called it a comedy of manners, and Leckie has a distinctive, somewhat detached style which helps her create awkward social atmospheres seemingly effortlessly. The pacing is okay, the prose too, and enough stuff happens to keep the reader’s interest fresh. It needs repeating: all that is no mean feat, and Provenance is definitely not a bad book.
A small part of the novel’s charm deals with the strangeness of aliens – but ultimately it’s just the same old trick as in Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star: having aliens speak garbled English. I wrote ‘small’ part, because I wanted more. Provenance is set in the same universe as Leckie’s famous debut trilogy, but those of you craving more of the Rrrrrr or something like that hilarious & menacing Presger translator
will be disappointed. In fact, the character of the Geck ambassador more or less repeats Leckie’s trick from Ancillary Mercy – yet without anything coming close to the genius of the fish sauce.
Provenance is the Imperial Radch trilogy light. Those books are about characters and pack quite some emotions – although it might not show at first, and Leckie takes her time to develop, all the way up to book 3. This is a standalone story of 438 pages, and the main character simply isn’t as interesting, her adventures not as compelling. In fact, the ending is so, so predictable I wonder if it’s a joke on Leckie’s part. Joke or not, it doesn’t make for literature that sticks, as the narrative arc ends with a fizzle, and the same goes for whatever emotional build up there might have been.
The back cover blurb speaks of a “planet in political turmoil at the heart of an escalating interstellar conflict” and a “novel of power, theft, birthright and privilege”. Elizabeth Bear even dubbed Leckie “an heir to Banks”, but make no mistake, this is no sprawling, epic space opera. The cover with its Death Star vibe is a fraud. There’s a wee bit of technology and a big chunk of science fiction coolness in the opening scene, but aside from shape-shifting androids piloted by humans the remainder of the story hardly depends on whatever science fiction premise. At its core, this could have easily been a story set somewhere in our Earth’s past – much like the first book of Leckie’s trilogy by the way. Iain M. Banks’ vast imagination was something else entirely.
Birthright and privilege are themes, yes. The main issue of Provenance is the issue of becoming independent, achieving self-realization. There is the child breaking free of its parents, and on the larger level, a culture at the start of detaching itself from a childish, delusional fetish for its ancestors. Provenance indeed pokes fun at nationalism, but that doesn’t make it an urgent political novel for our times. The Hwaean culture is rather silly in this respect, and I doubt any Earthling will see his or her political image reflected, and vote differently next time.
The Imperial Radch trilogy was about what being human means: determined, conscious and loving bodies – whether made of flesh or not. As such it resonated deeply with me. Provenance‘s philosophical blueprint operates on a smaller scale, so small I couldn’t really say what it is, except for that call for self-realization. As such, this is a generic children’s story: be what you want to be. Yet the nature & difficulties of our will doesn’t seem to be an important topic anymore, and that’s a missed opportunity: protagonist Ingray’s motivations are hardly examined.
To Leckie’s defense I have to add that on two key moments Ingray simply does something, nearly unconsciously, without knowing why, fully in line with Leckie’s stand in Ancillary Justice. But those moments aren’t enough to redeem this book, and save it from its lightness.
At times it looks as if Provenance will examine the effects of witnessing violent trauma, and it would have been a great angle to investigate, as violence all to often is taken for granted in speculative fiction, but Leckie only scratches the surface, and wants to spend yet more pages on those damned vestiges instead. Again a missed opportunity.
Certain elements are pulpy and add to the lightness: Captain Tic Uisine is a superman, and it’s a crying shame the mechanics of the action part of the plot depend on his abilities. I’m sure Leckie is aware of this – handwavium has become an ironic trope in the genre – but it simply would have been a better book if she hadn’t taken the easy way out. Stuff like this detracts from the emotional story because it lessens the overall believability.
Having said all that, I will read Ann Leckie’s next novel. Provenance might not be excellent, it’s good enough to keep her on my mental list: her style remains fresh & singular. The question will be if she’ll find a story that’s really worth telling, and surmount Provenance‘s anecdotal nature.