Elizabeth Bear: Ancestral Night

Not too long ago, I was writing about a book co-written by Elizabeth Bear and bemoaning the lack of pirates therein. Now, just two months later, I am writing about her most recent novel, and you know what? It not only has pirates in it, but they’re space pirates! To paraphrase Goethe, some days one feels seriously tempted to believe that there may exist a benevolent God after all.

Ancestral Night is, I think, Elizabeth Bear’s first straightforward Science Fiction novel since her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy and appears to be set in the same universe as that one (I have not read the trilogy yet, but Ancestral Night openly references it at one stage). It is space opera, but not in the over-the-top vein practiced by E.E. Smith and his successors but rather in the low-key, both scientifically and psychologically realistic vein introduced by C.J. Cherryh with her genre-changing Downbelow Station but with some added super tech, which in, which in turn is somewhat reminiscent of the late great Iain M. Banks (it even got me wondering whether Bear may not have intended the Synarche (the galactic civilization she describes here) as a kind of proto-Culture). And it is, by far more obviously than The Cobbler’s Boy was, a riff off Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It even has a Long John Silver analogue in Sexy Pirate Zanya Farweather, who may not quite live up to the original (but then, seriously, who does?) but comes very close indeed.

For its first half, the novel seems quite linear – our first person protagonist Haimey Dz and her two team members (one of them an AI) attempt to salvage a stranded alien star ship, are attacked by pirates and then hunted through half the galaxy. Then there is a sudden and quite sharp turn of events, Haimey finds out that she is not who we (or indeed, she herself) thought she was, and the novel switches to introspection and psychodrama, only for the narrative to change direction again and culminate in a treasure hunt. And ongoing through all of this are discussions about politics, identity, freedom and several other big concepts, making this an adventure novel of ideas; and in the tradition of the very best Science Fiction the debates are just as adventurous as the action. at about 500 pages, the novel is not even that huge, but it is crammed full with enough action and ideas to easily have filled a thousand pages under the pen of a lesser writer. Bear, however manages to juggle both her action apples and her concept coconuts so well that she not only never drops any of them but also creates an interwoven pattern in which they enhance and emphasize each other.
Every time the action pauses to let the reader catch their breath, there is some pertinent political debate, a fascinating philosophical point or just some scintillating piece of world building to delight in. It’s all brilliantly constructed (but of course, one would not expect anything else from Elizabeth Bear) and a lot of fun to read (which, again, is no surprise with this particular author). Ancestral Night is both thought-provoking and an enjoyable romp and strongly recommended. Apparently, Bear is currently writing on a not-quite-a-sequel novel which will be set in the same universe and while not being a direct continuation will share some links with Ancestral Nights – needless to say, I am very much looking forward to that.

Oh, and I’d totally read a novel about space mantis cop investigating crime.


  1. Pirates! (Because I know the kind of comment you expect from me ;-)) This has reminded me of two things: 1) I really must read some of the Culture novels – I ended up buying Inversions from a second-hand bookshop last year but I don’t know whether I can start with that, as it seems to be in the middle of the sequence; 2) I have to get back to Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts trilogy! I have it all and I’ve even read the first one, but I didn’t actually review it and, of course, it was so long ago that I’ve now forgotten all about it. I’ve also read the Cobbler’s Boy, I promise, but again I didn’t write about it soon enough, and now I’ll have to read it again before I can say anything intelligent about it.

    This sounds like a very interesting book – I love your idea of ‘action apples’ and ‘concept coconuts’ – and I may well have a look at it further down the line, but I want to cross off the Elizabeth Bear books that I own first. I’ve traditionally steered away from sci-fi, but recently I’ve read some very interesting stuff (Becky Chambers; and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Walking to Aldebaran) which has been more interested in characters and psychology than in blowing up aliens with stun-guns (which I know is a sweeping generalisation in any case).

    Lovely review, and well calculated to tempt people to take a punt on it. Thanks for flagging it! 😀

    1. Thank you very much for your comment!

      For some reason, I have read mostly the SF part of Elizabeth Bear’s work (apart from her collaborations with Sarah Monette, that is). I definitely should remedy that – but am more likely to finally give The Stratford Men a go, but we’ll see. 😉 Range of Ghosts looks very interesting too, and I hope you will get to read (and write a post about) it soon – which might just motivate me to get around to reading it myself. 😉 I also think you’d probably like her Stratford Men (the duology featuring Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe).

      Quite unexpectedly, she was in Second Life a few weeks ago for an interview which was very interesting (and I even got to ask her a question!)

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