I’m both comforted and disappointed by the new Leckie book. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. It was decent, readable, well-balanced and clever political space opera. I can get behind that. But the Ancillary series is such a high place to come from, there’s not much chance of equalling it, especially if you’re working within the same world – you’re never going to have that same impact of newness. And the lack of that is both palpable and distressing in Provenance. It feels very familiar, not just in that it is set in the same world as her previous works, but in that it has some of the same ideas running throughout, and while there’s a bit of comfort in that – you can just jump right in and not worry about who the Raadchai are and why the Presger matter – there’s none of the excitement of a new book, of that slow uncovering of understanding about the world-building. And yes, Provenance is set on a new world… within that universe. So you have a sense of how she’s going to build her story and reveal things and all that. It’s not the same, but it is very familiar.
So it’s never going to hit full marks for me – it doesn’t have the impact. But once you get over that, there is a lot that it does very well. Sure, it’s all stuff I expected, but it’s still very satisfying. The main character is very sympathetic, the world she’s on is interesting and differs from ours in some fundamental social stuff, as well as the aesthetics, she reveals the differences gently and subtly, so nothing ever feels like “here is the exposition paragraph”, and a lot of it is never perfectly explained, but you somehow have a sense of it anyway. The politics make actual sense, and the people involved in them actually feel like people who would choose to make the decisions they have made, in their circumstances, even if I wouldn’t. Things aren’t perfect or precisely awful – just different. And these are the fundamentals of why I like Leckie – excellent character work and plausible yet inventive world building.
In this particular book, I think the main character is the real draw for me; I found her very sympathetic. She’s not a “I hardcore love her” character, but she is just… lovely. She has some internal contradictions, but they all make sense and don’t get in the way of enjoying who she is. And you fundamentally want her to succeed… but in a different way to the Ancillary books, because the driving forces behind what she wants are totally different. Provenance isn’t an angry book. It’s much more about wanting to be recognised for your own talents, and working hard and being a good person in a complex and flawed world, and about family and acceptance, so it feels like a gentler plot, but not in a way that lacks any impact whatsoever – it’s just less punchy than Breq’s story.
Ingray (the main character) has either the charm or flaw, depending on your point of view, of not being a particularly remarkable person. She’s nothing really very special, within her family or within the plot, and that’s one of the things I found quite compelling about her. She’s still a real person, not just an every-person generic reader-slot like the lead of Neuromancer (whose name I’ve already forgotten), but a really real person has to be… quite a lot like everyone else. Her mundanity is her charm.
Especially since nearly everyone else in the book is exceptional. Some of them because they’re inscrutable alien ambassadors, some because they’re very high-flying politicians, some because they have a unique background. And having this one, very normal character amid all that exceptional-ness… grounds it nicely. I never felt that Ingray was insufficient when compared to them, because it’s her who does a lot of the leg-work that they need doing. She’s necessary, and thus important, for what she does, not what she is. Which I really enjoyed.
Then of course, because it’s Leckie, one of the things that is different (both to us and to the Ancillary books) is the use of pronouns. On Ingray’s world, you have three pronoun genders, and it becomes clear through the book that children/young adults/grown ups choose their pronoun when they decide which one they want to be known as, and it is a mark of their passage into adulthood. There is also commentary on this from the perspective of the Raadchai, where the ambassador is struggling through her auto-translate to pronoun people right because she doesn’t quite understand – her culture only has one third person singular pronoun. And it’s just another thread of why I like Leckie so much, because I really enjoy the amount of thought she puts into how social structures work in her worlds. It’s not science fiction where the tech has changed but we still have 1970s gender roles… but in space! She acknowledges that change and difference has to be in the whole underwriting of society, as well as the tech, and it feels like a more complete world that she’s built because of it.
That all being said, I think the force of Breq’s story and her anger really lift the Ancillary series, and it’s not just the impact of its newness. I like Provenance a lot, and really enjoyed reading it, but its cosyness couldn’t quite stand up alongside the story of someone fighting for all that Breq fights for. It’s a difference of four stars to five, so still a clear enjoyment, and if it ends up in the Hugo nominations, I’ll be very happy – depending what it’s against, I may well be hoping it’ll win – but it’s not quite the levels of “push the book into the hands of any persuadable friend” that the Ancillary series was.
So yeah, still good, still making me want to buy any new Leckie just on the strength of being Leckie… but not quite the amazing she’s managed before.