Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Review: Provenance

Provenance Provenance by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ann Leckie has the perhaps enviable problem of having written a first novel so (deservedly) successful that her future work will always be compared to it. Ancillary Justice is a tough act to follow, and for me, this didn't reach the same high mark, though it was good, and got better as it went on.

The main issue for me was the protagonist, who starts out indecisive, ineffectual, whiny, and with a petty motivation for poorly-planned actions. This does leave room for a lot of character arc, and she does become someone much more admirable eventually, but it takes a long time.

Meanwhile, in Leckie's trademark style, she plays with our heads with gender pronouns. In the Ancillary trilogy, everyone was "she" (a cultural convention); here, it appears that the human society recognises three genders, men, women, and nemen, and possibly that people get to choose which one they are when they become adults (indeed, as part of becoming adults) - that's never completely clear. In fact, the whole issue of gender is at one and the same time completely in the background and irrelevant to the plot, and also constantly obtrusive because of the pronouns. For me, that made the story harder work than I felt it needed to be, and I'm afraid I resorted to reading the nemen as men and ignoring the whole issue (since it made no appreciable difference). Perhaps the "made no difference" part was the point.

There's a theme, lightly sketched for most of the book, of being able to choose your own identity and other people respecting that, and also a theme of historical authenticity and connectedness. The title refers to the culture's obsession with objects that were present at particular historical moments, which gives them a kind of mystical significance independent of their value in other ways; several such objects are revealed as fakes in the course of the book, and there is some discussion of how this changes things, but I didn't feel that the idea was ever fully explored, or linked clearly enough to the theme of choosing your identity. One aspect of the society is that you can be given someone else's name as their heir, and this makes you, in a certain sense, that person - you can even exercise an office they've been elected or appointed to. If this had been more clearly and strongly brought together with the idea of the artifacts that gain their significance from the occasions they were present on, and the characters who were trying to justify present prominence by past connections, and the Treaty that everyone was trying not to break, and maybe some aspect of the gender differences, I feel the book would have been stronger; as it was, I was left to make my own connections, and not given a great deal to work with in order to do that. It ended up being much more of a plot/character novel than a theme novel, which is fine, but I felt it left a lot of potential on the table - not to mention that the plot was slow-moving and the main character annoying for a lot of the book.

It was better than I make it sound, but not as good as I thought it could have been.

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