When you have built an award-winning universe, there is little point starting a new one. Much better to go, as Ann Leckie does in Provenance, and explore another corner of it. Iain Banks understood this and, similarly, set many of his science fiction novels in and around his expansive Culture universe. For readers steeped in Leckie’s universe, having been on board for the trilogy that started with her multi award winning debut Ancillary Justice, small call backs and particular characters and situations have greater import. For those new to Leckie’s universe it allows her to produce a stand-alone novel with a more epic feel. The events of the Ancillary trilogy are referenced but as one of the characters herself observes “that was very far away”.
Provenance opens with Ingray Aughskold trying to pull off an audacious plan to attract the attention of her mother, the Netano. Ingray, in competition with her brother to take the title of Netano, pays all of the money she has to organize the release of a prisoner from “Compassionate Removal” a prison from which, supposedly, no one returns. It is after the transaction does not go as planned and she is down her luck that Ingray’s troubles really begin. Together with a potentially rogue starship captain and her newly released companion she returns home to the planet Hwae and into an interstellar incident involving theft and murder.
Ingray herself is a great character. While she sometimes lacks self-belief – “she was just Ingray, [she thought] nobody special, not beautiful of brilliant or particularly important to anyone” – she is also incredibly resourceful and loyal. Provenance is, in many ways a hero’s journey, and although Ingray would not describe herself as such she does come, over the course of events, to realise she is much more than she initially thought.
The plot of Provenance, as the name might suggests revolves around a particular aspect of Ingray’s Hwaen society that values relics and evidence of the past known as vestiges. Various parts of the plot revolve around the authenticity (and provenance) of various vestiges and the weight that the society puts on that proof. But there is plenty more going on in Provenance – a murder mystery, political intrigue, mistaken identity (more than once), hidden identities, alien diplomacy and a full blown invasion – with Ingray somehow in the middle of it all.
Through her body of work, Ann Leckie has become one of the torch bearers for the type of complex but completely approachable and fun space opera with plenty of heart that Iain Banks was known for. And luckily for fans of great science fiction there are enough threads left remaining at the end of Provenance to indicate that she is far from done exploring her universe.