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Provenance by Ann Leckie review – good old-fashioned space adventure

Ann Leckie … a mix of the estranging and the cosy.
Ann Leckie … a mix of the estranging and the cosy. Photograph: PR

Ann Leckie’s 2013 debut, Ancillary Justice, flared like a meteor through the skies of contemporary science fiction. A near unanimity of critical acclaim, enthusiastic adoption by fans and a clean sweep of all the major SF awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C Clarke, Kitschies and BSFA – unprecedented for a first novel – made it the genre event of the year.

All the hullaballoo looks, perhaps, a little odd in retrospect. In many ways Ancillary Justice is a good old-fashioned space adventure, set in the ruthless galactic empire of the Radch, which is quasi-Roman with a few British Raj touches (a lot of tea gets drunk). The narrator, Breq, is the last of what was formerly a huge collective consciousness running the spaceship Justice of Toren. The Radch way is to capture individuals, mind-wipe and reprogram them to join these collective entities. Breq, though, is on her own and out for revenge.

Leckie does not deny her readers the satisfaction of adventure, intrigue and space battles, but she puts those things at the service of some richly rendered observations on the difference between loyalty and obedience, service and slavery. All characters are referred to by female pronouns because the Radchaai don’t distinguish gender: a simple but surprisingly effective strategy for disorienting readerly preconception. Two sequels – Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy – carried Breq’s story to its conclusion, expanding Leckie’s imaginary universe in pleasingly Iain M Banksy ways, and Leckie found herself propelled, in short order, to the front of the genre.

Success on this scale, though, can put a writer in an unenviable position. Expectations for Leckie’s new novel are at fever pitch, which makes me wonder if a degree of anticlimax, deserved or otherwise, is almost inevitable. It turns out that Provenance is a thoroughly decent science fiction novel that is readable, absorbing and ever so slightly so whatish.

The novel is set in the same Radchaai universe as Leckie’s debut trilogy, although it doesn’t directly continue Breq’s story. Instead we have Ingray, an aristocratic young woman from the Hwae system, who borrows money against her future inheritance to pay for an individual called Pahlad Budrakim to be smuggled out of “Compassionate Removal”, the euphemistic name for a rather horrible prison planet. Pahlad’s crime is the alleged theft of certain venerated historical artefacts, the recovery of which, Ingray hopes, will secure valuable social status for her. But things go wrong straight away. Having spent all her money on the jailbreak, Ingray is now poor, something for which her privileged upbringing has not prepared her. Her scheming brother is only too happy to exploit her disadvantage, and she quickly gets tangled up in both family power politics and more dangerous galactic treaty negotiations between potentially ferocious alien species.

Provenance is intricately, if linearly and rather shallowly, plotted. It leans heavily on the likeability of its protagonist to carry the reader through the ins and outs of its arcane social protocols, treaty terms and legal shenanigans. Ingray is a likeable heroine, but not a terribly remarkable one. Lots of SF nowadays is doing this sort of thing – Lois McMaster Bujold and John Scalzi both come to mind – and Provenance reads as a less distinctive novel than its forebears.

Instead of “she” as catch-all pronoun, Provenance goes with the properly gender-neutral “e” for many, though not all, characters. It’s a convention that proves surprisingly easy to tune in to, although I kept hearing the dialogue in a Yorkshire accent: “Whoever e is now e came into Hwae space on false pretences … e says so emself.”Leckie is happy to write unleavened SFese of the “in Eithiat Budrakim’s household e had been given a post overseeing in lareum where the Garseddai vestiges were kept” kind. There will be readers who find this clogging, although hardened fans of space opera are certainly used to it.

Behind this veil of estrangement is something rather more homely. Despite the existence of interstellar travel, “spider mech” and houses built of “ruin glass”, much of Leckie’s imagined universe feels familiarly old-fashioned: police precincts out of Ed McBain; public parks complete with visitor centres (“restrooms, some snacks for sale, and a counter where a Safety officer sat”); news feeds with clickbait headlines such as “CONSCIOUS AI MAKES ITS MOVE AT LAST – IS THIS THE END FOR HUMANITY?” Midway through the story a character is murdered with a common-or-garden kitchen knife, and the police check this weapon for fingerprints. People wear hairpins, walk with canes, swear quaintly – “Infernal powers!” “Gods of the afterlife!” – sit in committee meetings and generally resemble characters from an ordinary novel of ordinary 20th- or 21st-century life. This is not exactly a criticism: the mix of the estranging and the cosy is part of Leckie’s appeal, and her many fans will surely enjoy the way this new novel balances them. But we are entitled to wonder whether a thousand-year-old galactic empire saturated with futuristic technology would be quite so recognisable.

Adam Roberts’s latest novel is The Real-Town Murders (Gollancz).

Provenance is published by Orbit. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

This article titled "Provenance by Ann Leckie review – good old-fashioned space adventure " was written by Adam Roberts, for The Guardian on Friday 13 October 2017 10.59am

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