Provenance by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2017, 443 p

 Provenance cover

This novel is set in the same universe as Leckie’s highly successful “Ancillary” books but this one is in a far-off corner well away from the Imperial Radch fiefdoms though a Radch ambassador makes an appearance at one point.

In an attempt to impress her foster mother Netano, and so improve her own chances of succession rather than have that bestowed on her foster brother Danach, Ingray Aughskold has travelled at great expense to the planet of Tyr Siilas to try to extract Pahlad Budrakim from a state of imprisonment known as Compassionate Removal. Budrakim is the son of the Prolocutor, an elected official on Ingray’s home of Hwae. Netano is a former Prolocutor who will be seeking re-election soon.

Pahlad is delivered to her in a suspension pod but Tic Uisine, the captain of the ship Ingray has paid to travel home in, is unwilling to carry any passenger without that person’s express approval. When the pod is opened its occupant denies being Pahlad but after some toing and froing agrees to go on the ship.

On arrival at Hwae they become embroiled in a diplomatic contretemps with the ambassador of the Geck – a race in contact with the mysterious Presger who are an incipient menace to humans. Though he has all the necessary papers the Geck believe that Tic Uisine has stolen his ship from them (more than one in fact) and want him for restitution.

Meanwhile the Omkem, from the next interstellar gate to Hwae, are manoeuvring to gain access to Byeit, the system one on from Hwae with whom Omkem used to have gate access before a revolution on Byeit broke the link.

Hwae society has an exaggerated respect for vestiges, each household seems to have its own repository of such things, called a lareum. Hwae’s most venerated object is a copy of its original independence document kept in the system Lareum. (I liked the use of this word, with its echoes of a Latin term for Roman household gods, for a vestige repository.) However it turns out that “copy” may be the precise word. Provenance you see. Though does that actually matter if everyone agrees that what the document represents is all that counts?

A bunch of Omkem soldiers invades the Hwae Lareum, taking schoolchildren hostages in the process, and Ingray offers herself instead. There is also some byplay about the disturbance of a possible vestige site and the death of an Omkem ambassador.

Leckie throws personal pronouns about with abandon. Unlike in the Ancillary books she does not use she exclusively. Ingray is a she, Danach a he, but others are designated e. This indeterminate pronoun necessitates the use of em and eir as possessives, plus emself and eirself. From a British perspective a phrase such as, “she told em,” reads a little awkwardly at first as plural.

Leckie also makes much of Ingray’s full skirts and her uselessness with hairpins. The text is also riddled with information dumping – a lot of which is unnecessary, Leckie telling us about her universe because she can’t resist doing so. There is far too much of Ingray’s inner monologue and a degree of prurience about sexual relationships straying very close to, if not over the border of, Becky Chambers territory. Yes, the narrative has a chatty style but at times it seemed as if Leckie might be being rewarded for a high word count as whatever strengths she may have, economy isn’t one of them. See Pedant’s corner for an example.

Provenance is on the BSFA Award short list this year for best novel. I’ve not read any of the others yet but I think it’s safe to say it won’t be my number one.

Pedant’s corner:- Sat (sitting.) “‘They are disquieting, aren’t they.’” (is missing a question mark,) “since she’d waked” (woken.) “One small child turned their head to look at Ingray. Sniffled. Opened their mouth.” (what’s wrong with “one small child turned its head? Opened its mouth?) “‘Does she.’” (Again, missing the question mark,) “and besides, both Dicat and Chenns very probably knew what they were doing. She would only be in the way, and, besides, she’d caused this, it was her fault that Nicale was hurt” (like so much else in the book this needs a damned good editing; get rid of at least one of the “besides”, and either the “she’d caused this” or the “it was her fault” as they both tell us the same thing.)

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