If you don’t go in to this expecting to be challenged with brilliance, you’ll probably enjoy it very much. Despite being set in the same story universe as her Imperial Radch trilogy, Provenance is of a much lighter tone, and is much more accessible. I struggled with massive confusion for about the first quarter of Ancillary Justice before I caught on, but not so here. I had fun with it, but it didn’t knock my socks off (and I don’t think it was supposed to).
Our main character is Ingray Aughskold, whose adoptive mother is a politician on her homeworld of Hwae. Ingray has taken drastic steps to finally prove herself to her mother, who believed the best way for her (all adopted/fostered) children to thrive was to compete against one another. She would then choose one of them to be her heir, to pass along her name (and its benefits) to them. Ingray has always felt at a disadvantage compared with her older brother Danach, who is sneaky and conniving, and she feels, a much better player at the political game. So she spends her entire savings (quite a sum) plus borrows against future earnings (even more of a large sum) on a desperate ploy. She pays to have an infamous person, Pahlad Budrakim, released from a “prison” that no one has ever returned from so that he can help her recover valuable items which she can use as political leverage. Or, failing that, leverage his supposed knowledge of their location. She doesn’t have a full plan yet. (It’s a problem.)
The book actually opens with Pahlad Budrakim supposedly being delivered to her in cold storage, but when she releases him, he says he’s not Pahlad Budrakim at all, but after some events involving an ambassador and the ship that they’ve booked passage on, he agrees to help her anyway since it’s better than going back to Compassionate Removal.
So let’s talk about Compassionate Removal, because I find it fascinating. Hwae refuses to admit that their version of crime punishment is a prison. Instead, they “remove” citizens from the planet and drop them on another one to make their own way. They do this with the rationale that it’s not a punishment, and they are free to live and support themselves, just away from the society they harmed. Once you are compassionately removed, you are legally dead. Of course you can see the flaw in this. Drop a bunch of criminals in a place without any infrastructure at all and inequalities, hunger, and violence will abound.
I won’t say anymore about the plot because some of it is couched in twists and reveals, but this definitely felt like an Ann Leckie book, with her characteristic no-nonsense writing and characters who creep up on you in your feelings. It’s got murder, trickery, political machinations, aliens (we meet another alien species called The Geck who play a big part). She also likes to play around with gender roles in society, as well as societal expectations in general–she’s obviously fascinated by the idea of certain cultures taking things for granted as being obvious and natural, and other cultures seeing those things as socially constructed absurdities, but also being unable to see their own socially constructed absurdities for what they are. Hwaean culture allows for three genders (woman, man and the gender neutral neman) and has the pronouns to go with. I do confess that I’m not entirely sure I got all the rules for that, but it’s really a surface detail. You can follow the plot and understand the character motivations without being too caught up in all the worldbuilding, which acts more like imaginative tapestry. There’s a lot of stuff centering around where things come from and where they belong, and what that means (hence the title), but it’s subtle and I ultimately enjoyed the little thematic backbone it lent to the story.
All in all, Leckie continues to be a very interesting author, and I can’t wait for her next book. Hopefully she dives back into the meatier stuff now. I enjoyed this little diversion, but I love when she goes deep.