Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

I bought this book without knowing much about it while visiting the New York Comic Con. I remember hearing about some issues people had with the pronouns in the book (eg, thinking e and em were typos), and I was curious to see how I would react to it. While set in the same universe of her prior books, this novel is far more focused and personal. Furthermore, it can be read on its own without any problem. Here's the official blurb:

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. 

Read on for my spoiler-free review.

Overall Impression
While perhaps not as impact-ful as Ancillary Justice, this was still an enjoyable read. The plot moves along quickly, though not always in the direction you expect. The setting borrows heavily from prior books, but still manages to inject new cultures and aspects to the world. While the cast of characters is small, the book feels far more focused than the more over-arching narrative of the Ancillary novels.

The story starts of with a simple premise of recovering hidden artifacts by rescuing a criminal. Things quickly get out of hand, however, as the identify of the criminal is in question and the captain of the ship appears to be connected to the Geck aliens travelling in-system to visit a Conclave (to deal with events of the prior books). From there, it's a mix of an adventure mystery with political drama as the main character, Ingray, tries to get the better of the situation and stay ahead as things start to unravel around her.

The story centers on Ingray Aughskold, adoptive daughter of Netano Aughskold and with a chance to become the heir. It is her rivalry to her brother Danach that drives her to pursue the rescue of Pahlad Budrakim to recover old relics and gain favor with her mother. Along the way, Ingray meets several notable characters that join in her adventures, such as Tic Uisine, Garal Ket, and her childhood friend Taucris. Ingray is intelligent and ambitious, but she can be a bit reckless when her plans fall through and she has to salvage the situation.

Setting / World Building
The novel is set in the grand universe of the Imperial Radch trilogy, started by Ancillary Justice, though featuring very different worlds and cultures. This is set roughly after the main events in these books with the civil war and AI issues in full swing, albeit distantly. Like before the threat of the Presger aliens is present, though in this book it is more concern with the nature of the treaty with them and how other aliens, including the Geck, have now signed on. A violation of the treaty, by either Geck or Humans, is considered by all parties to be devastating as it's believed to be the only thing keeping the Presger back.

In more local matters, we get to see the interaction between several planets, namely Tyr Siilas, Hwae, and the Omkem Federacy. We see most of Hwae as the main characters are from there and get to see it's odd fixation with historical relics. I know collectors exist in our modern age, but the people of Hwae take that to the extreme. A big point of contention among these various system is the use of gates, which allow faster than light travel between systems. It's an interesting concept in how access to gates between systems leads to the rumblings of trade wars.

Probably the biggest aspect of the setting that is immediately noticeable is the third gender. Details on it are scarce through the book, which is a nice touch- this is so common place, why bother explaining it? These nemans are neither men nor women and use e, em, eir as their pronouns (in place of he/him/his and she/her/hers). In fact, it looks like people decide on their gender once they become adults in Hwae. It's a contrast to the Ancillary novels as in Radchaii space, there is only one pronoun- she (and consequently everyone in that language/culture is a daughter/mother/female). With today's trends in gender expression, it's good to see that science fiction is still working to push boundaries and preconceptions.

Final Thoughts
Overall this was a pretty good book, though personally I enjoyed the Ancillary novels a bit more. The focus of this book was much more personal, which is a good change of pace (though I personally enjoy the far-reaching story arcs). Regardless, the characters and setting are pretty good and leave you wondering how life in the Hwae system is like with all their curiosities. One important aspect is that while the book technically follows from the Ancillary novels, it is not a sequel and can be read perfectly fine on its own.

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