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Provenance by Ann Leckie

A power-driven young woman has just one chance to secure the status she craves and regain priceless lost artifacts prized by her people. She must free their thief from a prison planet from which no one has ever returned.

Ingray and her charge will return to her home world to find their planet in political turmoil, at the heart of an escalating interstellar conflict. Together, they must make a new plan to salvage Ingray’s future, her family, and her world, before they are lost to her for good.

I’ll admit that sometimes I stumble a little when it comes to science fiction. Of all the different genre fiction that is out there, it’s sci-fi that is regularly my great white whale. Space battles and aliens blowing up into small piles of green goo is fine, I get that. It’s when the science fiction gets a bit more thoughtful that I tend to have problems. I remember the first time I tried to read The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F Hamilton, boy did I struggle. I could not get my head around the first chapter. The plot seemed so weird and outlandish that I just didn’t get it. I have a rule though, I always give every book I read a hundred pages to win me over. I’m so glad I did. About three or four chapters in a funny thing happened, everything just clicked. Suddenly, I got it. With that admission in mind you can appreciate that when I picked up Provenance I viewed the novel with a certain amount of trepidation. Was it going to cause me the same levels of internal anguish I had experienced before? The good news and the quick answer to that question is a resounding no. I was caught up in the plot immediately. Ann Leckie’s writing is remarkable. Her world building captures the tiniest of details and they all dovetail seamlessly in the universe she has created.

Where I think the book really excels is the characterisation. Ingray Aughksold is such a well- rounded and fleshed out creation you can’t help but really feel for her. She is the black sheep of her family. She wants nothing more than to make her mark and prove herself worthy of her name. The only problem is that Ingray’s plans have a habit of unravelling in front of her. Ingray’s adoptive mother, Netano, is an important dignitary on the planet Hwae, and her presence overshadows her daughter at every turn. You get the distinct impression that whenever these two talk there are multiple levels to the conversation. Netano is a shrewd operator, always playing her cards close to her chest, and Ingray find herself often on the backfoot. Is her mother an ally or an enemy?  There is also Ingray’s brother, Danach. He is Ingray’s polar-opposite. Where she is uncertain and a little naïve, he is charming, confident and debonair. Danach is quite the alpha male and he knows it. I found him to be more than a little sleazy. He will stoop to about any level to ensure his place in the pecking order is not compromised. We learn Danach has always been favoured by Netano, and the assumption everyone makes is that he will eventually replace her as head of the family and in her political office. Needless to say, this makes the interactions between him and Ingray barbed at best.

As a counterpoint to the relationships of the family, there is some serious galactic politicking going on. A diaspora has occurred and humanity has spread across the stars. Each faction that exists is keen to ensure they maintain the power they have accrued as well as gaining more. Add some alien races into the mix, who have agendas of their own, and you find yourself with quite the bureaucratic and constitutional nightmare. Ingray attempts to navigate this minefield politics and family with varying degrees of success. She meets a host of shady individuals and she keeps coming back to the same question, who can she trust?

Based on what I’ve said thus far you may be fooled into thinking that Provenance is an entirely cerebral affair, it isn’t. Along with all the Machiavellian wheeling and dealing Ann Leckie also has a keen eye when it comes to action. The novel’s climax manages to be extremely tense as Ingray find herself in a life or death situation. From the reader’s perspective, the fact that this incident has a whole host of political ramifications is an added bonus.

A quick internet search reveals that this novel is set in the same universe as the Imperial Radch trilogy. I can’t tell you much more than that I’m afraid. I’m not sure if there is any direct crossover or not, as I’ve not read that series of books. They’ve won quite a lot of awards though, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Overall, I was mightily impressed with Provenance. It’s the mark of a true storyteller when the strands of a complex narrative appear to weave together so effortlessly. The plot explores a host of subjects, everything from familial obligations and gender politics to growing pains and finding your own place in the cosmos. I think I am beginning to understand why Ann Leckie is so widely regarded. I’m sure fans of the author’s other novels are going to find plenty to enjoy. Provenance also appears to be a perfect jumping off point for new fans, like me.

Regular readers of The Eloquent Page know I like to recommend a soundtrack to accompany a book that I read, and Provenance is no exception. I went with an album called Offworld (Instrumentals) by Celldweller. I figure intergalactic, society spanning science fiction needs a musical accompaniment that suitably captures the tone of the story.

Provenance is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended.

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