A copy of this book was supplied by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Ann Leckie’s latest novel takes place in the same universe previously explored in the acclaimed Ancillary books, but fortunately can be read as a standalone. The narrative focuses on the sole-PoV of Ingray Aughskold, who breaks a dangerous thief out of prison by the name of Pahlad Budrakim to help her adopted mother damage a political rival, while raising her own status amongst her family. They plan to do this by stealing valuable antiques, or vestiges. But Provenance isn’t a heist novel. Rather, it’s a politically-driven narrative, employing power-play and status and relationships as its main focus.
The novel’s slow start accelerates a little after Ingray and Pahlad arrive back on Hwae, Ingray’s home planet, but slows down again to a frustrating snail’s pace. This wouldn’t be a problem, were the characters half as compelling as they should be, given their backstory. Ingray, a woman raised in a cutthroat political climate and supposedly trained by her austere mother to use every opportunity to dominate those around her, is on the verge of bursting into tears a dozen too many times for anyone who could have conceivably survived in such an atmosphere. Worse, she’s blindly misled by a number of people around her, including Pahlad, who manages to convince her e is someone else entirely. Ingray gladly swallows this, only to discover, much to her bewilderment, Pahlad is actually Pahlad when someone else points it out…only to be misled again once she discovers not-Pahlad has another identity altogether. Ingray is also seemingly unaware of the bleeding obvious, least of all the fact that people around her have their own selfish interests at heart. This ignorance is even lampshaded by the characters around her. It’s difficult to believe that someone in her circumstances is allowed to be this stupid and lacking such self-esteem.
The other characters don’t have much chemistry, or much interaction between them that indicates at more depth. This is especially clear with the non-existent relationship between Ingray and Pahlad, who she insists on sheltering and defending when it’s clear that e’s own agenda surpasses hers. We’re expected to buy Ingray’s politically-bound relationship with her mother, but we’re never given enough depth for it to feel genuine, and thus the relationship on-screen is unconvincing. What little growth we do see feels unearned and without any backbone to support its fragile arc. Other than the faintest hint of sibling rivalry between Ingray and her brother, there’s scarcely a sniff of any character conflict, or much of a reason to care what happens to them.
In saying all this, the worldbuilding here is quite strong. Leckie’s universe consists of over half a dozen mini-empires and species and guilds tangled in political conflict with each other. Leckie manages to never make them feel overcrowded or confusing. In aid of that is their cultural divide, pronunciated by varying attitudes, gestures and beverages. The use of gender pronouns is an interesting one, and exists naturally within these cultures, rather than sticking out unnaturally. There’s careful planning and depth given to each of these worlds and the people that inhabit them, at least on a marco-scale. The politicking and world-changing events within these allegiances would have carried much more weight if the same depth was given to the characters stuck in the middle of it. Ingray itself only seems to care about her home on a superficial level. She was born on this planet, so she must protect it. There’s no emotional weight to give the tandem of character and world that extra polish, so it feels like surface material.
The plot starts to escalate, once Pahlad’s father discovers that e has been broken out of prison. Once a foreign power arrives in the Hwae system and captures a space station, things do start get a little more interesting. Additional political players start to interfere, and there are a few cool interactions with aliens. But even when Ingray is under threat, it’s difficult to sympathize with her plight because we’re given so little reason to care for her. While she shows evidence of becoming a little more headstrong towards the end, I wished she’d exhibit more character agency.
It’s frustrating to see the right ingredients of a tense political situation and empires in ruin, and never see them come to full fruition. It’s difficult to imagine that foreign invaders taking control over an entire space station could end up being dull, but this book manages it; a feat in of itself.
It’d be easy to completely wipe Provenance off, but its smart world-building and realised cultures fails to balance out the lack of character depth, onion-thin relationships and bizarre plot. You could do worse for a cozy, light-hearted read, but if you’re after something with a bit more meat, you’re better off looking elsewhere.