For a book that features deep space travel and multiple distinct alien races, Ann Leckie’s Provenance is a surprisingly human and even cozy story. A companion work to her stunning Imperial Radch trilogy (more informally referred to as the Ancillary trilogy sometimes), Provenance focuses on smaller stakes — though of course there are intergalactic ramifications. It follows Ingray Aughskold, the adopted daughter of a planetary noble, as she takes a risk to impress her mother and stumbles into a tangle of converging political plots and alien interests. And for all the airlocks, mechs, and yawning voids of interstellar nothingness, there’s a surprisingly relatable tale of growing up, finding one’s own identity, facing down bullies, and the benefit of indulging in a good cry before making important plans.
For better or worse, Provenance takes a very different approach than the Imperial Radch trilogy. Were you one of the ones who thought those books spent way too much time on tea and the related dishware? Good news! There is very little tea or the customs related to it in this one. In fact, there is even a murder not far in to really get things going!
On the other hand, the smaller scope of the story makes Provenance feel much less earth-shaking than its predecessors. It’s not bad by any means, and it’s still a roundly engaging story, but the Imperial Radch trilogy masterfully questions and plays with ideas of consciousness, self, and what makes an individual, especially in this age of AI and the cloud, and it literally changed how I think about gender.
The world and the culture at the center of Provenance has three gender options to choose from when one comes of age, but that mostly only affects the pronouns used, and gender has no bearing on any major plot points or social decisions. Perhaps it’s nice to have a story that subverts our earthling (and mostly Western) ideas of gender while not making a big deal out of them along the way, but I found myself missing the way the Imperial Radch books slyly made me question what I thought I knew. Instead, all I got was a space romp and intergalactic culture clash, so I guess I can’t complain too much.
All in all, Provenance makes a lovely little companion piece to the Imperial Radch trilogy if you can go in expecting as much. It’s not quite as challenging (as mentioned above) or rigorous (a few things didn’t get explained at the end as well as I’d like), but it felt good to return to that universe and see what’s happening in another corner with a soft little heroine who presses forward even when things just can’t ever go quite right.