Fiction Reviews

Ancestral Night

(2019) Elizabeth Bear, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 502pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20874-2


Following a tip into deep space, Haimey Dz, a salvager, her partner and pilot Connla, Artificial Ship Intelligence Singer, and two cats come across a huge derelict spaceship and an aggressive space pirate that immediately starts to pursue them. This sets in progress a chain of events that will change Synarche controlled space for ever.

Elizabeth Bear is an accomplished Science Fiction writer with an excellent international reputation, beginning with her winning a John W. Campbell Award for Best New WriterAncestral Night is the first of a new space opera trilogy, the 'White Space' trilogy and there is a certain amount of heavy lifting that has to be done when you are setting out a new fictional environment to tell your stories. Bear manages to balance this with a tight first-person perspective, concentrating on Haimey’s account throughout the book.

Certainly Haimey Dz, is a character and her quirks permeate the prose. There is a story arc here for the character that interrelates with the events that she initiates and responds to in the narration. The idiosyncrasies of her personality are also a story in themselves as her past is revealed. In one respect, Bear develops this very carefully. There is clearly an attempt to portray a character with flaws that does not fall into the trap of being an overcoming narrative trope. There are also physiological differences between her and us. She has four hands and no feet, making her more comfortable in zero gravity environments.

However, there are some disadvantages to Bear’s approach. Haimey talks obsessively about her AI ship, Singer, as if she is in love with it. She digresses continually into highly detailed second guessing of her own choices and actions. At times, the text becomes slab paragraphs of reflection or speculation on possible actions. When we get to parts like this, much of the prose encourages the reader to skip and move on. Whilst it is very clear that Haimey is a distinct character voice, identifying with her is not always easy to do.

Similarly, the transactional mechanics of the novel gradually take Haimey’s perspective away from the reader’s position. Like many science fiction stories, circumstances mean she is given power over her environment in a Nietzschean way, becoming super human, capable of affecting the physics of the space around her. It will be interesting to see how this new capability affects her character in the later novels of the trilogy.

The fictional universe that Haimey lives in is diverse and interesting. Bear’s Synarche is a remarkable interstellar conglomerate whose motives are at times questionable, particularly when Zanya Farweather arrives and establishes herself as Haimey’s adversary. There are a selection of alien characters with a variety of different perspectives on how events are developing. Some of them are very well developed, whilst others remain in the background.

The internal story of how Haimey discovers herself and the external story of the mysterious ship gradually leads to an epic conclusion. In the detail of this, Bear leans towards a young adult level of description in the action, meaning at times, it is difficult to feel that Haimey is truly under threat or in danger.

Ancestral Night is an interesting 'young adult' space opera that offers a detailed and progressive take on an interstellar society of the future. There are comparisons to be drawn with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and the society that he created for those novels. It will be interesting to see if Bear’s Synarche will be as vividly drawn.

Allen Stroud


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