Friday 25 May 2018

There's so much to love in Provenance, and so much to be disappointed in

Provenance is a novel that starts with a lot of potential, but left many in our book club frustrated, and
The fact that Provenance's
wasted potential angered
us is proof that Ann Leckie
had us engaged to begin with.
(Image via
ultimately disappointed. While many interesting themes, plots and ideas are introduced, few of them are satisfactorily explored or developed.

But the fact that so many people in our book club were so upset about these unsatisfactory resolutions shows that author Ann Leckie was doing something right. Each and every one of our book club members were engaged with the narrative enough that it kept us wanting more than it delivered.

Despite being set in the same universe as her previous trilogy of best-sellers, Provenance is a significant departure for Leckie, in terms of subject matter, themes and style. In fact, the connections to the Ancillary trilogy are tenuous enough that one wonders what was gained by reusing the same setting.

Comedy of Manners

Drawing on the traditions of the British farce, Provenance introduces the reader to an aristocratic
The provenance of items in museums
is a very interesting question to examine,
and one that science fiction has rarely
tackled. It's a rich subject that Leckie
only scratches the surface of.
(Image via argumentative archaologist)
faction of humanity that is obsessed with class and status. At times, these obsessions are well-handled and embodied in the gormless charm of Woodhousian protagonist Ingray Aughskold.

For the first hundred pages, many of us couldn’t put the book down — Aughskold’s hair-brained scheme to break a convicted forger out of prison is engaging. The ways in which this plot careens off the rails — the wrong convict, the ornery captain, her financial woes — are a lot of fun to read.

Set in the classist, pompous, and high-protocol society of Hwei, the story involves the provenance of historical artifacts that may or may not be forgeries. Questions of authenticity and of the validity of historical power structures are hinted at, but not fully developed.

Haphazard Narrative

And unfortunately, the novel splinters as the scope of the story widens. From the intimate struggles of Aughskold to the large-scale galactic intrigues and interspecies politicking, the plot jumps forward in awkward and haphazard ways. Adventures that are foreshadowed are dropped without notice.

The mistaken identity of the convict? Nope, he’s just who he was supposed to be in the first place
If they make a movie of
Provenance, Hugh Laurie
should play all the upper
class twits
(Image via
(Why bother with setting up the mistaken identity?). The ornery captain? Disappears without a goodbye, only to show up a hundred or so pages later via a telephone conversation.

There’s so much to love in this book, so much to be disappointed in. Were this the debut novel from a new author, one might have suggested that it shows an enormous potential, but we already know Leckie is capable of greatness, so this cannot help but be a let-down.

Leckie’s fourth novel drew a larger crowd to our book club than usual and it is rare for us to have had such unanimity amongst the opinions expressed. None of us placed it at the top of our Hugo Award ballots, but none of us had it at the bottom either.

Young Adult

Some at the book club meeting suggested that Provenance might have been better served if it were pared down in length and modified slightly for the Young Adult market. The protagonist, her sunny disposition and inherent goodness all seem well-suited to the YA market, as does the relatively linear narrative structure.

Leckie has built up a lot of goodwill based on the quality of her previous novels — that goodwill, and the unfulfilled potential of the ideas at the core of Provenance may be enough to get her a second rocketship.

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