Antiques Space Show
Arthur C Clarke Award winner Ann Leckie is back – and we’ve read her new novel.
released 28 september 448 pages | Hardback/ebook Author ann leckie Publisher Orbit
It’s sometimes suggested that Ann Leckie is a kind of heir to Iain M Banks, which is a description that doesn’t conjure up images of fun. That’s not to say that the much-missed Big Beard’s fiction was somehow tough-going, but the comparison suggests space opera that’s being written to exacting standards.
Indeed, one reason the Imperial Radch trilogy garnered so many gongs (with Ancillary Justice sweeping the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C Clarke and BSFA awards) was that Leckie’s work seemed equal to meeting such benchmarks. And yet Banks was also an author who seemingly loved popular fiction as something both to subvert and to celebrate. Most especially, his books were notable for being so driven by a love of plot; story for its own sake. In contrast, Leckie’s writerly image is, as yet, of a rather serious soul, someone reinventing space opera for the 21st century. There’s more than a grain of truth to that, but it arguably misses a lightness of touch that runs through Leckie’s fiction – a reflection in part of not being published until she was in her late forties and thus arriving in the public eye as close to the finished article.
That perhaps explains the surface confidence of Provenance, which is a very different kind of book to her previous fiction. This is Ann Leckie having fun, with a standalone story (albeit one set in her Imperial universe) about a young woman, Ingray Aughskold, trying to impress her powerful foster mother, Netano. To do this, Ingray pays to have a notorious criminal, Pahlad Budrakim, smuggled out of jail. Her hope is that e (gender is complicated in Leckie’s fiction) will reveal the whereabouts of stolen “vestiges”, which will help the political situation of Ingray’s family in a society where antiques associated with key moments in history have a quasi-religious significance.
Though she’s been raised amid money and influence, there’s a naïve quality to Ingray. Her scheme does not go to plan. Pretty soon she’s confronted with financial problems, a freed prisoner who denies his identity as Pahlad, a thieving ship captain, an alien (and rather cross) ambassador whose motives are at the best times unclear, and a murder. Her mother, Ingray fears, will not be too impressed by the plan of Baldrick-like cunning she’s enacted…
Running through the novel, as well as ideas around why we value certain objects and symbols, there’s a secondary theme of sibling rivalry. One reason Ingray is so set on impressing her mother is that she wants to best her foster brother, Danach. He’s introduced to us as a brilliant operator, although in truth he comes across as brattish, someone who urgently needs to check his privilege.
But maybe that’s the point, in that we’re seeing Ingray’s take on her brother. Indeed, in key respects, Provenance is a comingof-age novel, a book told from the perspective of a young woman growing in confidence, and towards being able to make choices for herself rather than because certain things are expected of her. And here is a potential problem with the novel.
At moments, the scattergun perceptions of early adulthood – oh, look, pretty thing; that’s not right; oh, that’s why that works like that – seem so to the fore that you’re not confident Leckie is fully in control of her narrative. Or perhaps she is and she’s just in character.
Whatever your take on this, it really doesn’t spoil the enjoyment too often. Mostly what you come away with is the sense that if you take the Imperial Radch books as a single (albeit very long) work, Leckie has negotiated that difficult sophomore novel with confidence, humour and even a little bravado. The Big Beard would surely be impressed. Jonathan Wright
Ann Leckie’s next book is a fantasy novel. She says writing it involved “a fair amount of zoological research”.
This is Ann Leckie having fun with a story