An­tiques Space Show

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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

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