HUGO BOOK REVIEW: Provenance by Ann Leckie

written by David Steffen

Provenance is a science fiction novel written by Ann Leckie released in September 2017 through Orbit Books, which takes place in the same universe as her breakout Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice (2013) , Ancillary Sword (2014), Ancillary Mercy (2015)).  This book takes place shortly after the events of Ancillary Mercy.  It doesn’t share any of the characters or settings, but some of the political forces, cultures, technology, and alien races are familiar to those who’ve read the trilogy.  I don’t think you’d have any trouble following the story if you hadn’t read the trilogy, and I think it would work fine as a standalone, but you may have a shortcut to understanding certain elements from having seen the cultures and species in the previous books.

Ingray Aughskold is the adopted daughter of a wealthy politician, eternally pitted against her brother for her mother’s favor since her mother hasn’t chosen a successor for her position yet.  Always outdone by her brother, Ingray spends all of the money she has at hand in a desperate bid for her mother’s attention, and pays to have a criminal smuggled out of what is supposed to be an inescapable prison for a far-fetched scheme to win money and fame.  When the person she is delivered claims to have no idea who she’s talking about, she’s back to square one on a strange planet with very little resources.  She can’t call her family for help if she wants to make it anywhere in the competition with her brother.  She tries to salvage some scraps of her original plan.

I enjoyed revisiting the universe from the original series, and to see some areas of it that are not familiar.  Most of the trilogy had taken in Radch space and so was colored by Radch technology and Radch politics and Radch culture.  This takes place outside of Radch space, though there are Radch characters.  One of the interesting things about the Radch trilogy had been that Radch refer to everyone by default pronouns and have little to no concept of differing genders at all, finding it very disconcerting when they need to speak in other languages where gendered pronouns are required.  In this book, you get to see a mixture of different cultures and how they view things like gender, and tradition, and I found that fascinating.  I was also very excited to get to see closer interactions with one of the alien races that I hadn’t seen in the Radch books.  While Ingray did have a vague plan in mind for much of the books, I felt at times that coincidences tended to land a little too neatly to make it all work out, but the plot kept me guessing and I was rooting for her along the way.

I recommend the book, especially if you read the Imperial Radch trilogy and would like some more from the author in that universe.


BOOK REVIEW: Ancillary Mercy

written by David Steffen

Ancillary Mercy is the third and final book in Ann Leckie’s award-winning Imperial Radch series with previous installments Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword.  If you are a newcomer to the series, these are books that I would recommend reading in order, otherwise there’s a lot of important events that aren’t going to make a lot of sense.  You can read my review of Ancillary Justice here, and my review of Ancillary Sword here.  There’s no way to discuss this book without spoiling major elements of the previous books, so I’m not going to try.

Breq, the one remaining ancillary (human avatar) of the starship Justice of Toren has stabilized the situation in Athoek System.  She was sent her by Anaander Miaanai, many-bodied emperor of most of the human star systems.  Well, sent here by… part of Anaander Miaanai, anyway.  The trouble with having countless bodies scattered across the galaxy is that a situation that you find truly conflicting can start a civil war within yourself.  A civil war that even Anaander Mianaai wasn’t openly admitting to until Breq confronted her at the end of Ancillary Justice.

After that initial confrontation, one faction of Anaander Mianaai shut down much of the gating system used for travel between star systems so that only military ships (which can make their own gates) can travel.  After that, Anaander Mianaai sent Breq to Athoek System with the claim that this vital station needed to be stabilized and prepared for difficult times.  Breq consented in large part because there was a person on Athoek Station that she desperately wanted to see, the sister of Lieutenant Awn who had been an officer aboard Justice of Toren.

In Ancillary Sword, Breq succeeded for the most part in stabilizing the system, although one major event that happened is that a Presger translator was killed during a violent conflict.  The Presger are an incredibly powerful alien race that has not exterminated humanity only because they have forged an uneasy treaty with them.  They themselves are nigh incomprehensible (and offscreen) and communicate through the medium of their translators–human-ish ambassadors who are decidedly strange and mostly incomprehensible themselves.

Phew, that was a rather long run-up to the actual review.  Sorry.  Even this is leaving out major important bits, but a lot of the ideas are complex enough that it’s hard to jump into book three without any context.

After this brief period of stability that bridges book two and three, events start picking up again as they find someone in the unsurveilled Undergarden area of the station, another Presger translator arrives, and one of the factions of Anaander Mianaai arrive to confront Breq and take back Athoek Station.

Ancillary Mercy is a worthy conclusion to the series.  It doesn’t tie everything off with a neat bow, far from it, but it is a satisfying conclusion to most of the major plotlines of the trilogy.  There is plenty of exciting action, political intrigue, interesting conflicts and I was never bored.  Leckie, as ever, is a master of the kind of concise writing I love best.  The pacing is perfect– the tension goes up and down with the events of the book but my interest never waned because every scene is there for a reason.

I remarked in my review of Ancillary Sword that that book felt like half a book, and I still feel that way.  To me it feels like a two book series, with Ancillary Justice as the first book, and the other two combined as the second book.  I don’t knock Orbit for publishing it in three books of approximately equal length, but it does affect how I think of them and read them.  For instance, I don’t think Ancillary Justice has to necessarily be very fresh in the mind to read Ancillary Sword, but I found it rather more difficult to read Ancillary Mercy with my only reading of Ancillary Sword 14 months in my past.  If you have a choice, now that all the books are out, I’d recommend reading 2 and 3 back to back.

One element of this book that surprised me (in a good way) was that there was a bit more comedy in this one, generally in the form of the Presger translator doing strange things, and especially in the translators conversations with other characters, especially with a particular ancillary character.  The translator, though she appears to be human, has no experience at being human and so despite being intelligent and powerful, she is also often childlike and bizarre.  If this kind of humor had been without the right finesse, the translator could’ve ended up as annoyance that didn’t fit into the series’s tone (ala Jar Jar Binks) but it was handled very well and especially contrasted well with Breq’s dry personality.  I loved it, and was surprised by it.

Out of the whole trilogy, I still think that Ancillary Justice is my favorite, for its novelty and for the extremely difficult point of view it manages to succeed with during Justice of Toren flashbacks where one POV character is existing and interacting in dozens of bodies seamlessly and simultaneously.  But to say that I like books 2 and 3 less is no insult–I like the first book so much that that’s a tough threshold to beat, and I like books 2 and 3 enough to give a hearty recommendation.