Provenance - Review

A few years back, I watched The Godfather: a timeless classic and a cinematic tour de force, noted for many film awards and a ton of quotable lines.

I really didn't enjoy it.

Part of it was that some aspects of the 1972 film had dated by the mid-2010s when I saw, but it was also because I was left underwhelmed given the immense praise the film had been heaped with. It certainly wasn't bad, but I didn't engage with it the way all my fellow cinemaphiles seemed to (Stu, if you're reading this, please don't hit me). The critical acclaim turned me off what would have otherwise been a pretty competent crime film - or an above-competent one whenever Marlon Brando is on-screen. Certainly not a bad film by any stretch, but definitely not for me.

I think that's the same problem I've encounted with Ann Leckie's work. Her debut novel, Ancillary Justice, was certainly thought-provoking and a departure from garden variety sci-fi, winning every award under the sun and touting them proudly on the front cover. It bore a unique plot and fascinating protagonist. But the actual book itself, away from the paratexts of awards and critical analyses, was just a fairly decent space story with some intriguing gender concepts, a bit of a problem with tone and a slightly bigger problem with the writing style. Like The Godfather, it certainly wasn't bad, but I didn't engage with it the way my fellow bookreaders seemed to (Goodreads users, if you're reading this, please don't hit me).

Provenance is more of that kind of work, for better or worse. Moving away from the AI-fragment-stuck-in-a-flesh-body character of Breq, protagonist of Leckie's Ancillary trilogy, Provenance follows silver-tongued young woman Ingray. She's the daughter of a powerful aristocrat who treats her like trash in a hierarchical system which prizes agency and ruthlessness. Presented with an opportunity to seize the control that her mother is withholding from her, Ingray embarks upon a daring plan with the help of a recently-decanted criminal.

The overwhelming quality which prevents me from digging my hooks fully into Provenance is the writing. It's a similar style to Ancillary Justice, presenting things in a style of detached and semi-emotionless perspective while exposition unfurls every which way; it's also, as a result, somewhat alienating. By the halfway point of the novel, I cared little for Ingray's struggle against her autocratic mother, despite the fact that the book tried on multiple occasions to paint her as emotionally suffering and anxious over everything that was happening. Ingray could have been the most emotive character ever put to paper, and I still would not have been able to empathise with her struggle given how off-putting the writing is.

The style itself is not an inherently bad one; the Ancillary trilogy wouldn't have been so acclaimed if it were, and it's the sort of thing that Iain Banks' Culture novels pulled off well alongside their marvelous worldbuilding. But in Leckie's original trilogy, the tone fit Breq's point of view given that she was an alienated character herself - literally an AI fragment put into a host body and forced to become a person, rather than the people she had been when she'd been a full AI in command of thousands of soldiers and a powerful warship. Her having to acclimatise to the biological constraints imposed on her coldly logical intellect was articulated well by Leckie's writing and the universe it described, Breq seeming at times as lost in the shuffle as the reader was. Though I didn't enjoy Leckie's writing there, at least it was apropos. Here, though, I feel it's unsuited to the point of view of someone like Ingray, a character we're informed is in a near-constant emotive state.

Compounding this issue is the plot. I was honestly hard-pressed when thinking of what to write for that summary above, given the threads Provenance pulls on and which ones it contends will constitute a story. I followed the early section, after Ingray decants her accomplice and attempts to get offworld without ruffling any feathers, but once she got home and attempted to speak to her mother - an event which purportedly kicks off the "main" plot of the book - I was lost in a morass of political machinations and social nuances which went right over my head. Ingray's journey seemed like a good schematic with a dry execution; the idea of a woman attempting to usurp deserved power from an aristocratic parent sounds great, but is presented with minimal reason to invest from the reader.

But at the same time I say I didn't like Provenance, it's hard to call it a bad book. I'd say those of you who like Leckie's style and come to it expecting more of the same from the Ancillary books will love it. It's a largely self-contained story, too - I thought I'd be disadvantaged having not finished the second and third Ancillary books, but Provenance does reasonably well in orienting folk who aren't familiar with the previous trilogy. Despite the off-putting writing, Leckie's also conceived an intriguing and multifaceted universe, clearly taking chief inspiration from Banks' Culture series (I was particularly reminded of Use of Weapons at certain points).

So take Provenance with a bit of salt. While I can't say I enjoyed the experience, it seems - much like The Godfather - to have been well-made for the right crowd.

- Chris

Provenance is available in bookstores now.

Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Hachette Australia.


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