About the book
Ancestral Night is about a salvage team which specializes in retrieving ships stuck in white space. White space is the term the characters use to describe the universe allowing faster than light travel. Entry and exit from white space is done via a tear between universes.
When a ship has trouble exiting white space and gets stuck during transition it leaves a scar. These scars are what the salvage team, consisting of Haimey DZ, Connla Kurucz, and Singer, are expert in finding and extracting ships from.
It is during a salvage operation the team finds evidence of a crime which leads them down a path of ancient discovery and galaxy wide politics.
The book was written by Elizabeth Bear and published on March 5th by Gallery / Saga Press and distributed to kindle by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc. Ancestral Night is 512 pages and available in ebook, audiobook, paperback, and hardback.
Why I chose this book
A number of things caught my eye with Ancestral Night. First, I was looking for new releases to review. The more recent the book the more people are searching for reviews and content about the book. Bookbub is always a fun source for what’s coming out. Here is the list for 2019 new releases.
Other than being a new release Ancestral Night was published by a well-known publisher and written by a successful Author. On Elizabeth Bears website it lists her accoladed as, “She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award-winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stories; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.”
I typically read self-published authors and was in the mood for something more polished. More big budget – epic – science fiction. The description of the book catered to that desire when it read, “Energetic and electrifying, Ancestral Night is a dazzling new space opera, sure to delight fans of Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, and Peter F. Hamilton.”
Story – 3 Stars
The story was very much written in a classic space opera style with invented units of measure, slang and social conventions. If the year was stated somewhere in this book I can’t remember and couldn’t find it when I went back to search. Either way, this book is set in the far future.
An old government, called the Synarche, controls most of the known space. The Synarche is a combination of types of government mostly democratic but requiring service instead of allowing for votes. The economy is a highly regulated form of capitalism using data to set the value of goods and services.
Ancestral Night uses character conversation to explore the politics of the different regions. There are some characters who like the Synarche and others which are more skeptical. The conversations feel normal and non-offensive. Even if you are particularly sensitive about politics in Science Fiction you should be fine reading this book.
**Minor Spoilers next few paragraphs**
The story arc is a gradual build starting with a salvage operation where the group finds a ship and the dead corpse of an Ativahika. An Antivahika is a giant sentient space alien resembling a sea horse.
Haimey and crew board the ship and find strange technology and evidence of a terrible crime. During the engagement, Haimey gets infected with a substance making her skin glow.
The story takes the crew on a search to figure out what is happening to Haimey. The crew interacts with Pirates, discovers an ancient Koregoi ship, figures out whats infected Haimey, and solves the crime.
**End of Minor Spoilers**
I gave the story 3 out of 5 stars. My primary issue with the story is that is incredibly difficult to define. Is this a story about solving a crime? Is this a story about finding an ancient spaceship and not wanting it to fall in the wrong hands? Is this a story about Haimey and her coming to terms with her past? The answer is yes to all those things. Any one of those stories would be a great book but when you mix them together you forget what the point of the story is.
Characters – 4 Stars
Haimey Dz is the main character of Ancestral Night. Supporting characters are Connla Kurucz and Singer the Artificial Intelligence operating the ship. The primary antagonist is Zanya Farweather. Farweather doesn’t show up until about 30% into the book.
Elizabeth Bear spends a larger amount of time developing the Haimey character. The book covers, in great detail, Haimey’s upbringing and most significant previous relationship. Bear dives into Haimey’s sexuality and use of “Rightminding” technology to manage feelings and responses to situations.
Haimey’s character development was critical because it effected her interaction with Zanya Farweather. I won’t spoil this interaction if you plan to read the book. There were times when I thought Farweather may turn into the protagonist and turn the Synarche into the antagonist.
Singer was another complex character. In the Synarche all beings are equal. Running the salvage ship was a job for Singer just like it was for the biological life forms. Bear did a nice job imparting Singer with machine intelligence balanced with logic and emotions.
The third main character Connla Kurucz was the least developed out of the main characters. Connla did talk about what he was passionate about and what he wanted to do with his life outside of salvage so we were able to get a sense of his personality. I don’t think the book needed to explore Connla any further.
I gave characters a score of 4 out of 5 stars. I penalized a star because the book was so heavily weighted towards Haimey. Her backstory, while necessary, the length and detail distracted me from the original plot.
Pace – 2.5 Stars
Pace is where I struggled with Ancestral Night. This book was 512 pages and it should have been 412 or less. The dialog was erratic at times with the characters going on tangents about nothing. There were a number of time I skipped pages. I also thought about quitting several times.
When the story arc isn’t apparent to the reader, pace always suffers. Parts of the book feel like filler episodes of Star Trek, i.e. interesting technology and universe but doesn’t move the plot forward.
Originality – 3.5 Stars
This book was as original as it can be given the topic. I have read dozens of books which deal with discovering ancient ships or technologies. Universes with pirates and fractured civilizations are also not new. Infections with ancient bio or nanotechnology are also not new.
Bear combined the common space opera tropes into an original story which had some original elements. A good example is the Righminding technology. There are many books where the characters have the technology to alter biochemistry for various reasons but I had never read anything as detailed as Righminding. The book goes into great detail about the physiological, cultural, and ethical impact of altering personality.
Technology – 4 Stars
The use of technology was good throughout the book. Bear kept it believable with almost no techno-babble. The science and distances were well thought through. Nothing stood out as impossible even if the main characters lacked the skills to understand the technology.
There were no major breakthroughs or big ideas surrounding technology. Primarily just modification and smart implementation of familiar ideas. I particularly like the body modification of putting hand where feet should go to make it easier to operate in zero gravity.
I liked this book but didn’t love it. I felt it was slow with a weak story. The ending was less than spectacular. Frankly, the book was just too long. I enjoyed parts of this book immensely. The entire discovery of the ancient ship was particularly fun. Bear’s writing style when characters are exploring is exceptional.
The description compared Ancestral night to books by Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks. I’d say the writing style could be compared but the story doesn’t stack up. I’d say a closer comparison would be to James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series. If you liked Expanse then you may like Ancestral Night, although the Expanse is quite a bit better.