Ancestral Night Paperback – 7 Mar 2019
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This is certainly the best science fiction novel I've read in 2019 so far and I look forward to see how Bear develops the characters and her impressively rich universe. (POPULAR SCIENCE)
Elizabeth Bear is just as comfortable writing steampunk and fantasy as she is hard science fiction, and Ancestral Night, first half of a duology, brims with heady concepts and sleek far-future hardware. There is a mordant wit at work. (FINANCIAL TIMES)
Cutting edge ideas and amazing characters in an SF novel that announces the arrival of multi-award winning Elizabeth Bear to the Gollancz listSee all Product description
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Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.
I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-missed Iain M. Banks's 'the Culture' universe - for example the quirkily named ships, though here they are more poetic than humorous, and the AI shipminds that are characters in their own right, though Bear's are less entirely emancipated that Banks's.
When it comes to the ideas, there are two broad strands. One is physics. Although the ancient alien technology is a different matter, the conventional spaceships have Alcubierre-White drives - based on the closest thing we have from real physics to the design for a real warp drive. This is lovingly described and plays a major part in the storyline. We've also get a rather nice description of (and plotline involving) the galaxy's supermassive black hole. More significantly, though, as a novel of ideas, the book explores the nature of personal freedom within society.
This is done in part by contrasting Bear's equivalent of the Culture - the Synarche - with a group of pirates. (As an aside it's fascinating how there seem to be spontaneous emergences of themes in books - we've also seen recently Alastair Reynolds' Revenger series with pirates as a major factor.) In all honesty, the 'pirates' in Ancestral Night would probably be better labelled anarchists as their motivation is significantly more sophisticated than stealing pieces of eight. It's perhaps a reflection of the fact that characters with ambivalent morals tend to be more interesting, that I found myself lining up more with Farweather, the main antagonist, rather than with Dz.
I only have two small moans. One is the not uncommon urge for the author to tweak just one aspect of the language - in this case, Bear changes the names for time units. So, for instance, days become diars and light years (I know it's not a time unit, but it's the time part of it that changes) become light-ans. Any far-future book is, in effect, translating the language, and it just doesn't make sense to change one tiny aspect - particularly one that's used by science, so is more likely to remain consistent. It just grated a little. The other small issue is that the book is rather too long, mostly because the author's motto of 'show don't tell' is ignored and we get long internal monologues - often lasting several pages - which don't move much forward. This contrasts with the dialogues, where the political side of the ideas strand is mostly advanced, which, if anything, can be too short.
These points are small though. This is certainly the best science fiction novel I've read in 2019 so far and I look forward to see how Bear develops the characters and her impressively rich universe.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Station masters colluding with pirates, war crimes kept secret, and the emergent backstories of the characters all build up a well-textured story, and the basis for further explorations in the White Space Universe.
The author does tend to get distracted by the world she's created, sharing details on the politics, technology, and culture of her universe in a way that slows things down at the start, but it's Big Idea SF and anyway things pick up pretty quickly, and as I've intimated, she's building the foundation for a universe that will support more than one story. She's managed the most important step here, introducing us to a trio of engaging characters: Haimey the main character and salvage engineer, who shares some character DNA with the Expanse's Naomi Ngata, Connla, a pilot, gender-indifferent skirt chaser, and strategy game aficionado, and Singer, a shipbrain with a passion for political theory.
If you're a fan of James S. A. Corey, Alistair Reynolds, Ian Banks, Jack McDevitt, or really, anyone who does really good space opera, you should enjoy this and look forward to more White Space books to come.
Dreadful and it is an insult to Iain Banks to compare this in any way to the Culture series except for his ship names, something this book appropriates. If you like Banks or Reynolds or even The Expanse, give this a hard pass. It in no way measures up, not even close.
We are also treated to long sections disguised as the crew debating various philosophical bents. Again, it’s only vaguely interesting and detracts from the story.
The story ? A worthy one, completely lost in the hundreds of pages of either the main characters ‘thoughts’, or the crews ‘fascinating’ debates.
It’s a shame. If Bear wanted to write essays, perhaps she shouldn’t advertise them as sci-fi novels.
Halmey Dz is the first-person narrator, a salvage operator aboard a ship called Singer, who is as deftly-drawn a character as any of the humans and aliens populating her story.
It's a narrative path we've seen before, as Dz and her human partner Connia Kunucz look for that big score, but find more than they bargained for. But Bear keeps it all fresh as Dz, Kunucz, and Singer discover much more than they anticipated, and Dz, in particular, learns more about herself and her own past than she bargained for.