“Provenance” is a delightfully deft piece of genre-twisting science fiction that pivots around the idea that our identity is the product of the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and where came from. It examines how the things that give that story a provenance, a history of ownership, become as important to us as the identity itself.
“Provenance” is a stand-alone novel, set in the same universe as the “Imperial Radch” triology, but focusing on humans living outside the Radch. The main character is a young woman, who has been adopted from a public creche by a noble family and given the opportunity to compete with her adopted brother to become the heir to the family name.
The story unfolds in an unhurried way, allowing time for building worlds and revealing characters. The actions starts off as a sort of heist/forgery idea, then morphs into a murder investigation and morphs again into a military thriller. The tone throughout is civilized, introspective and self-deprecating. If Jane Austen has written science fiction, this is the kind of humane comedy of manners she might have produced.
What I enjoyed most was that the main character kept making choices that, while fair, honourable and even quietly courageous, were unexpected in the circumstances she found herself in. The choices she makes create a chain of provenance that slowly shapes her definition of who she is and who she wants to become.
Ann Leckie has a gift for world building and for making us look with a fresh eye at things we might think we already understand. She creates aliens who really are alien to our way of thinking and our way of living but with whom we can be empathetic and from whom we can learn more about ourselves. It turns out that she also has a talent for humour that the Imperial Radch trilogy gave her almost no opportunity to demonstrate.
I listened to the audiobook version which is delivered flawlessly by the talented Adjoa Andoh, who also narrated the Imperial Radch trilogy. You can listen to a sample of her performance by clicking on the SoundCloud link below