Reviews

Review: PROVENANCE, by Ann Leckie

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

When Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, was published I acquired it on the strength of the enthusiastic reviews I kept reading online, but despite its brilliant premise and intriguing approach I could not bring myself to finish it because I failed to connect with both the story and the characters.  For this reason I had not paid great attention to the announcements about the coming issue of Provenance, at least until a teaser for it was appended at the end of James S.A. Corey’s latest Expanse novella, Strange Dogs.

That brief glimpse of what promised to be an exciting story, with a main character trying to smuggle off-planet a stasis box containing a body, was enough to draw my attention and I was very eager to see where that premise would take me.

Ingray is the adopted daughter of Netano Aughskold, a prominent politician on Hwae: according to Hwaean custom, people who hold power often choose to adopt parentless children and raise them as their own, while forcing them to compete in brilliance and accomplishments so that the best of them will inherit the title held by the house’s head.  While competent and motivated, Ingray has always known that her brother Danach stands better chances of winning the contest, so she concocted the plan of rescuing the famous thief (and son of one of her foster mother’s political rivals) Pahlad Budrakim from Compassionate Removal (a mix between forced labor and exile) and convincing him to reveal where he stashed the vestiges he stole from his family.  She plans on restoring them to their proper place, therefore gaining Netano’s respect and favor.

Vestiges hold enormous significance in Hwaean society, both as mementos of the past and as proof of one’s ancestors being present at important historical moments: one could say that they are at the very root of Hwaean civilization, since some of them, as becomes quite clear with the unfolding of the story, stand as proof of Hwae’s own independence and reason of being.  This is one of the most interesting aspects of Provenance, because human (or maybe even post-human?) civilization as depicted here seems to have lost any contact with its origin planet and needs to build itself a past and firm roots and does so by infusing extreme importance in what we might consider trivial objects, like a signed invitation to a party, or a ticket for a focal political event.  This is why the suspicion of forgery laid on some very important vestiges, and later on the threat of them being stolen by neighboring civilizations, is enough to throw Hwae into turmoil (as the saying goes: “Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?”): Ingray’s daring plan, one whose failure might leave her penniless and bereft of any further opportunity, crashes indeed first on the apparent fiasco of Pahlad’s rescue, and is then further waylaid by a series of unexpected events where political intrigue mixes with murder and complex inter-species relations.

Another fascinating detail comes from gender representation – not surprising, since I remember how Ancillary Justice did that by affixing the pronoun she to every character, no matter their sex: on Hwae there are three genders – male, female and neman, which might be defined as gender fluid as indicated by the pronouns employed for them. It made for an interesting mental exercise and reading challenge, but the novel did not delve too deeply into the meaning of it, or the status and outlook of neman characters, while some other tantalizing glimpses were added, as the fact that children would choose their gender once out of puberty, and sometimes even later as we see with Ingray’s friend Taucris, who seems to have been forced to choose by family and peer pressure once the usual time limit was reached and overcome.

Again, Provenance regales us with mention of sentient AIs (which I gathered came from the trilogy started by Ancillary Justice), and of a few alien races, most notably the Geck – reclusive creatures no one has seen, since they interact with others through remotely-controlled mechs. There is a great potential for a wide, fascinating tapestry in these glimpses we are afforded, but unfortunately they remain exactly that – and this is one of the reasons I was mildly disappointed with this novel despite its intriguing beginning, although my main contention comes from a perception of insufficient characterization and weak story.

Just as it happened with Ancillary Justice, I could appreciate the unique touches the author employed to create her vision, but at the same time I could not connect with the characters or build any interest for the story unfolding under my eyes: my overall impression was that of distance, or removal – while I kept reading because I was curious to see where the whole scenario would lead me, I felt no empathy with Ingray or any of the other characters, even when some important revelation about them was offered, or when their well-being was threatened.  This might have happened because the characters themselves did not seem to care: apart from learning about their motivations, we never seem to see those motivations into play, we never see any passion in what they say or do.  To me they almost walked through their own lives as spectators rather than participants, and that robbed them of the depth and facets I always look for in a character.  Moreover, some of the events develop in a confused and confusing way that at times left me quite puzzled, even though I could not summon the will to delve further into the details and try to deepen my understanding.

This is not, however, a negative comment on Provenance, but rather my final acknowledgement that Ann Leckie’s storytelling is not to my tastes: considering the huge success of her Imperial Radch trilogy, and the first excited comments I’ve seen from her affectionate readers, this will certainly prove to be another favorite for them. Just not for me….

 

My Rating: 

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14 thoughts on “Review: PROVENANCE, by Ann Leckie

  1. That “distance” you described by the characters was what made Breq, an AI in a human body, so engaging for me. I’ve got a weakness for non-human characters if I’m being honest. If that distance persists in this book as you describe then that’s a bit of a shame as I don’t see it working well for a “regular” human character.

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    1. Most of it is – I believe – a matter of perception, and other readers might not feel this distance. What I’m fairly certain is that, like its predecessors, this book will give life to very interesting discussions from different point of view. Which is what I enjoy 🙂

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  2. I confess, like you, I didn’t love Ancillary Justice. I did finish it and ended up liking it, so I went on to complete the next two books, but the trilogy never really bowled me over like it did so many other readers. Some of the reviews I’ve read so far for Provenance have made me think I might enjoy this more, but now reading your thoughts as someone who was lukewarm towards her first book as well, I’m not really all that sure anymore, lol! Well, either way I have plans to read this in October. No matter how it turns out, I’m sure it’ll be interesting! 🙂 Wish me luck!

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    1. I will not only wish you luck, but I hope your experience will be different from mine! 🙂
      As I told Robert in my other reply, it’s all a matter of “eye of the beholder”: if you still managed to enjoy the Radch trilogy, despite the lack of total immersion, you might very well end up with a different opinion on the book. I can’t wait for your review!

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  3. I’ve just finished reading Provenance and, as you say, my reaction was completely different. I connected with the characters very early on – as soon as Ingray met Captain Uisune, in fact, I felt a connection to them both. I saw their motivations play out in their actions constantly. And others’ too – especially the person who took the name Garal Ket, and the Geck ambassador, and Ingray’s brother.

    I admit that passion wasn’t what I saw in most cases. But passion isn’t how I express myself either, so maybe I related more to them for that reason? There were definitely a few moments of passion, though – Uisune’s confrontation with the Geck, Ket’s with Prolocutor Budrakim, and Ingray’s with Danach and his mech.

    Ket was probably the most passive. But e’s also got the biggest motive that e acts on constantly – never go back to the Compassionate Removal. Also, never starve. And that kind of trauma e went through does have that effect on people. And when e did take a stand, it was firm – use the right name. Don’t see anyone without proper witnesses.

    I think maybe if you’d been able to follow what was happening better the way the motives drove the character’s actions would have been clearer. A lot of it was implied and hinted more than outright stated.

    I didn’t get the impression neman were gender fluid. I did get the impression that Officer Idesta was – her wistful reaction to hearing that the Geck ambassador had changed gender, her reluctance to choose one of the three offered, added up to that for me. It seemed like neman were a third gender we don’t have, that the Hwaean culture had, the same way the Radchaai culture has only one. There are plenty of real life cultures with third genders too. And even though we usually translate any given culture’s male and female genders as being like ours, they often differ in some ways.

    Given all the initial Ns in words that represented a neman (nother, Nana, nuncle, etc) I guessed in my head that neman is similar to neutrois. They wear lungi which is also a somewhat ungendered garment in cultures where it’s worn, so that fit too.

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    1. Thank you for your interesting insights! Sadly, I guess it all boils down to a connection with the writing, and in my case I seem unable to establish this kind of connection and therefore to enjoy the story and appreciate it as it deserves. It’s a missed opportunity, I realize that, but that’s the way things worked out – or rather didn’t…

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  4. To be honest I didn’t really enjoy the first series – I stopped after the first book so I wasn’t intending to pick this one up – like you said I think that this author doesn’t quite work out for me which is a shame but it’s the way it sometimes goes.
    Lynn 😀

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    1. When my opinion goest the other way in respect of the general consensus, I always think that I missed something, some essential key to deciphering the “riddle”, but learning that I’m not alone in my puzzlement over these stories makes me feel better 🙂

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      1. I agree – I always feel like I must have missed something fundamental but I suppose at the end of the day we’re not all exactly the same and sometimes our tastes, which so often run along similar lines, just differ.
        Lynn 😀

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  5. Oh well, not all authors work for every reader. Sometimes you just don’t click. I have never read her books before, but I thought if I did I’d start with this one, simply because it’s supposed to be more lighthearted.

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