Ann Leckie’s Hugo Nominated novel Provenance takes place in the same universe as her Ancillary trilogy, but in a largely independent locale that is only peripherally impacted by the events of those three novels. Ancillary Justice was the first, and to my mind, best of that preceding trilogy, managing a great balance between crunchy hard-SF and social/cultural exploration. In particular, I found the depiction of shared consciousness and hive minds intriguing, and Leckie posited some interesting consequences of such technology. Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy largely jettisoned that idea in favor of the more social and cultural context of a much smaller system (also: tea), a maneuver that was unexpected and bold, but which left me mildly disappointed. At the time, I wondered what it would be like to read a story in the same universe, but with different characters.
Enter Provenance, a story set in the same universe, but not tied to any of the characters from the Ancillary series. Ingray Aughskold is seeking to gain favor with her Mother so that she could be named heir. She’s in competition with her brother Danach, who is considered to have the position locked down. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the book opens with Ingray’s plan to free a notorious thief named Pahlad Budrakim out of “Compassionate Removal” (a wonderful doublespeak euphemism for “brutal prison that is anything but compassionate”) in the hopes of convincing em (not a typo, we’ll get to it) to reveal the location of valuable vestiges that he had stolen. If she could find those vestiges and return them to her family, it would be a big coup for her (vestiges are apparently a big deal on her home planet, wielding enormous cultural and political influence), and potentially get her back in the competition for heir.
Naturally, her plan starts to disintegrate immediately. She’s spent most of her money getting this thief smuggled out of prison, only to find that e’s not who she thought e was. Then it turns out that Tic Uisine (the captain of the ship she’d chartered for her mission) has some undisclosed beef with some authorities. Even once they manage to get their way back to Ingray’s home planet, the trio keeps encountering newer and increasingly more complicated obstacles. There’s an archaeological dig that has implications for Ingray’s family, a murder mystery pops up, a group of children is kidnapped, alien ambassadors hang around causing fun, titular questions around provenance crop up, and so on. There are actually some mentions of the far flung events of the Ancillary books, but they’re exactly that: far flung and not particularly important to the workings of the plot here.
It’s all, well, pretty good. While lacking a bit in that crunchy SF component, it’s got lots of fun elements, a complex plot (something I usually enjoy more than most), and reasonably well done characters. The thematic exploration of how the past shapes the present is well done and fits neatly in with Leckie’s wheelhouse of exploring identity. Speaking of which, while the Ancillary series played with a sorta lack of gender, here Leckie reverses course, reintroducing gendered pronouns and including a third, gender neutral set of pronouns (e, eir, er – this is what Garal/Palad identify as, which is why I used those pronouns above), and allowing characters to choose how they identify. Like the primary use of feminine pronouns in the Ancillary books, it has an effect here, though it doesn’t feel entirely in line with the story.
All well and good, but aside from some interesting uses of mechs, the openly SFnal elements are a bit lacking. I mean, sure, there’s different planets and spaceships and whatnot, but they’re used to establish and illustrate cultural differences more than to cultivate that sense of wonder that SF can do so well. Not that this sort of thing can’t generate sense of wonder, but nothing in the book really twixed me the way that it probably should. There are references to two alien species in this novel, but neither are fully explored and mostly exist on the periphery. The Presger remain enigmatic, but we do find out some stuff about the Geck (in particular, we get some background on Tic, who has a complicated relationship with the aliens). I like that the aliens seem to be actually alien and not the distressingly common “basically a human but with a slightly different appearance” trope that a lot of SF uses… but it would be nice if we’d actually explore these worlds and beings a little more. But then, the plot here really doesn’t need it, and such a digression would probably only serve to kill the pacing.
So we’re left with a generally enjoyable novel. It’s got lots of fun elements, decent characters, and a nice, twisty plot. While I feel like I should like this a lot more than I do, it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it or anything. It seems to be sticking with me more after I’ve read it than I thought it would whilst reading. Is it truly Hugo worthy? Maybe, but I suspect it’s here more because of the follow on effect from the popular Ancillary books. Personally, it will probably fall somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of this year’s Hugo nominees, but this is only the third (of six) that I’ve read, so it’s hard to say for sure (I’m midway through two others though, and this seems about right).