Provenance by Ann Leckie
Published September 26, 2017
Set in the same universe as her critically acclaimed Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie’s standalone novel Provenance is hard to classify. Part political thriller, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story, Provenance shifts from the tea-drinking, glove-wearing Radchaai to the Hwae, a people who place enormous importance on “vestiges”, documents and artifacts that commemorate a specific event of personal or historical importance.
As a librarian who considered becoming an archivist seriously enough that I concentrated in archives courses, I’m a little embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to consider the significance of the title. “Provenance” is a fundamental principle in archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. However other definitions of the word refer to 1) the record of ownership of an antique, used as a guide to authenticity, and 2) the beginning or origin of something’s existence. How exceedingly clever that Leckie’s novel encompasses all of these meanings. Initially “provenance” refers to the vestiges that are so highly valued on Hwae, but it later becomes clear that “provenance” can also refer to a people’s desire to document where they came from and how it shapes their civilization.
When the narrative reveals that many of the vestiges that the Hwae hold dear are actually fakes, Leckie’s novel asks questions about the way we document historical events. Does a document need to be genuine to be important? Or can it gain significance through what it represents, even if it is based on a lie?
As is the case with her Imperial Radch trilogy, Provenance demands the reader’s attention. This is not the kind of book that you can read half-asleep on autopilot. For one thing, you’ll want to be fully alert to take in the complexity of Leckie’s astounding world building. I loved the Radch Empire, where androgyny is the norm and spoken language uses only one set of gender pronouns – she/hers. Here, Leckie gives us the Hwae, who use she/hers, he/his and gender neutral e/eirs pronouns. It’s a world where individuals come of age by choosing their adult name and the pronouns they wish to use, when they feel they have reached adulthood (although there is some social stigma attached to taking too long to decide).
The politically-charged society revolves around important families who periodically run for election. Each mistake made in the public eye or heroic action taken is viewed in terms of political gain or loss of face in the near-constant campaign for office. The head of each family names their successor, an heir who will, in time, take their name and duties. Protagonist Ingray Aughskold is an aristocratic young woman, adopted by one of society’s leading families as a young child. Seeking her foster mother’s approval, Ingray invests the last of her savings into a desperate gamble to show up her elder brother Danach and be named Netano Aughskold’s heir.
Ingray bribes a broker to smuggle Pahlad Budrakim out of “compassionate removal” in hopes that e will reveal where e hid valuable family antiques, known as the ” Garseddai vestiges”, that e stole from eir family. However, the criminal arrives in stasis and Captain Tic Uisine, the ship captain Ingray’s hired to transport her and her passenger home, refuses to take a person who isn’t awake anywhere without eir consent. Unfortunately, the person who emerges from the suspension box denies being Pahlad Budrakim, the thief central to Ingray’s plan.
These are just the first complications Ingray encounters, as she’s soon caught up in a murder investigation, allegations of fraud, and being stalked by the Geck Ambassador, who believes she knows where to find a stolen Geck ship.
Without meaning to, I’ve read a few books this month that revolve around a heroine’s journey to understand her place, both within her politically important family, and within society as a whole. Provenance is certainly the most successful book I’ve read on this theme.
Ingray Aughskold is an immensely likable character. Certain that her elder brother will be named their mother’s heir, she seeks initially a way to best him, and then a place for herself in the universe. Ingray often sells herself short, but she’s a resourceful protagonist, capable of getting herself out of any mess that she gets into. Ingray is also immensely human. I identified with and rooted for this young adult woman. Although she remains focused on the task at hand, and ultimately comes up with some daring plots, she also experiences realistic emotional reactions to extreme stress, including crying. The supporting characters are also rendered with care, from enigmatic Garal Ket and the forceful Geck Ambassador, to thief and pilot extraordinaire Tic and sweet Taucris.
As ever, Ann Leckie’s social commentary is subtle, but adept. Garal Ket’s biting criticism of “compassionate removal”, a euphemistic term for a prison where the exiled prisoners are declared legally dead, hits home amid news articles on the mistreatment of prisoners in North American jails.
Additionally, Ingray, who was adopted from a public crèche but has grown up in privilege as a daughter of one of the planet’s aristocratic families, says at one point, “I had never really thought about it that way before. Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?” and the Deputy Chief she’s speaking with, who belongs to an ethnic minority, responds, “You never really thought of it before because nobody has ever really questioned your being who you say you are. No one has ever told you your own vestiges are false, or that they mean you’re not really entirely Hwaean.”
There’s a great deal that’s refreshing about the way Provenance depicts gender, identity, and relationships. From the Hwaean custom of choosing your adult name and pronouns at a time when an individual feels comfortable doing so, to the acceptance of all three sets of pronouns (including the gender neutral e/eirs), to the inclusion of same-sex relationships.
Ultimately, Provenance is a deeply satisfying coming of age story about finding your place and your family, and about recognizing that the road everyone expects you to take is not always the right one.