Cover Image: Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night

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Member Reviews

I enjoyed reading several aspects of this book! The pacing was wonderful, characters were well drawn, and the reading experience on the whole was delightful.
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I received this book from NetGalley and publisher  in exchange of an honest review. 

This was a truly diverse space opera that was a pretty good read. This book has a slow build and once we get about halfway through the book picks up and became more enjoyable.
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Unfortunately, I did not get. the chance to read this ARC prior to its release and we did not end up buying this book for the library collection.
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This is a long, fascinating space opera in a far distant future in which humans manipulate their emotional moods and attitudes, AI shipbrains have dreams and social obligations, sentient squid-whales live in the vast interstellar spaces, and ancient alien technology holds the key to artificial gravity.

The story begins when Haimey Dz, engineer and scavenger of space wreckage, her pilot, Connla, and their shipbrain, Singer, act on a tip and come across an abandoned, repurposed space vessel (see above alien tech) that has been harvesting the corpse of a squid-whale (see above) to manufacture a costly and highly addictive drug. No sooner does Haimey realize (a) this is a moral outrage as well as a crime; (b) OMG there is artificial gravity here!; (c) she’s been infected with what looks like a glowing fungus-like parasite (see alien tech, above), but (d) aieee! The space pirates arrive to nab their prize.

One thing leads to another as the glowing fungus-like parasite grants Haimey the ability to sense, and eventually communicate with, said alien ships, and the charismatic and amoral female space pirate pushes Haimey to confront her own anguished past. Meanwhile, Haimey wrestled with her programmed adherence to mutual collective responsibility, teams up with a gigantic sentient mantis-like alien law enforcement officer from a low-gravity planet, Singer gets summoned to a term of civil duty, and the cats – did I mention the cats? There are two cats on their ship.

As I said, the book is long but filled with action and reflection that say as much about the different ways of looking at self vs society as they do about Haimey’s long-buried sense of self. It’s all fascinating, if a bit sedate in places, until the pieces start coming together. Then the parts I had previously found slow made brilliant sense and I couldn’t put the book down until the exciting and immensely satisfying conclusion. I say this as an advisory to other readers to hang in there: every piece is there for a reason, and it is richly worth the ride. Ancestral Night is in turns dramatic, thoughtful, humorous, hopeful, and tragic. From the government ship name, I’ll Explain It To You Slowly to the weird and wonderful artificial mind that has wrapped itself around a dying sun, to everything I’ve mentioned above, the book is as much about how we balance individual choices with the greater good, all tied up with a big ribbon and two cats. Worth savoring, and re-reading.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything in particular about it. Although, come to think of it, fine imported chocolates and roses might have been nice.
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It starts off slow and kind of dense, but once the action begins, it's hard to resist the story as it drives forward. It reads as a true epic, one that makes you feel the world really has been reshaped as you read it. Would recommend.
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I enjoyed reading this book though I found the plot hard to follow at times and had to walk away several times before I finished it.
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This was a great introduction to a series.  I am looking forward to reading more in the series when it is published.  DZ is an engineer on a salvage tug in outer space with two cats, a friendly pilot and  a curious AI shipmind.  DZ and her crew find a prize out in territory overrun by pirates.  As they are trying to secure the prize, DZ is infected by a biological agent and finds evidence of murder.  In order to make things right they have to fight pirates, secure financial resources and bring a murderer to justice without starting a space race war.  The plot was great, the world building was interesting, the characterization was also great.  I would have rated this a tad higher if it hadn't been quite so long and repetitive.  There are lengthy sections about English novels that I have not read (I am not highbrow I guess) and some repetitive stuff about mental control, emotional balance, those sections could definitely be trimmed down.  All in all the series is off to a great start and I would recommend it to anyone who likes long science fiction stories.
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Good twisty science fiction. Just when you think the story is going one way it heads off into another part of space, literally.  Begins with the ever popular hardscrabble space salvagers who encounter something far different, horrible and scary than they expect, and sets them on a possibly suicidal quest for answers (and salvage - one has to eat).  Lots of fascinating ideas, interesting characters and action, but a bit too much exposition to set up and explain everything. A lot of parts drag because of this.  Otherwise recommend.
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Let’s talk about dark gravity for a moment.  The existence of dark matter has been proposed as necessary to explain current cosmological theory and gravitational effects.  It is called “dark” because it is not detectable through direct observation.  There are a number of results consistent with a certain amount of dark matter, but it is still unobserved, and something of a cosmic fudge factor.  An alternative could be if there were unknown aspects of the gravitational force.  Recently, there has been found some evidence of gravitational lensing around other galaxies, that point towards more gravitation than current theory expects, at great distances.  Reference: “First test of Verlinde’s theory of emergent gravity using weak gravitational lensing measurement”, by Margot M. Brouwer, et al, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 466, Issue 3, April 2017.  Not a well-established theory, emergent gravity has however gotten a little time in the popular science press.

Given the amount of astrophysical jargon, I initially read Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear, as hard sf.  That is, the subgenre of science fiction that deliberately explores plausible extensions of the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, natural science).  After a while it became very apparent, that adventure was a more important aspect of the writing, and that this should be read as space opera.  It says so right in the publisher materials, so the fault was my own inclination, I suppose.  In the White Space universe, dark gravity is the basis of faster-than-light travel, and through some biological or nanoware infestation, also enables the main character to mentally sense and manipulate gravitational fields.

As a space opera adventure, Ancestral Night has an interesting and complicated first-person narrator. Haimey Dz has been surgically modified to have four arms, like a Quaddie from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free, making it difficult for her to move about under gravity.  More fascinating, however, is her interior landscape, having been raised in the enforced conformity of an extremist clade, and judicially brainwashed as a survivor of a terrorist attack.  She practices extreme self-medication of her moods, impulses, and desires as the situation requires.  An important question she wrestles with is what might be her own real identity, from the perspective of her rightminded personality, and edited memories.  A significant portion of the writing is involved with her interior issues.

The world building, after the dark gravity pseudo-justification, is a galaxy reminiscent of those of Iain M. Banks and C. J. Cherryh.  There is the stuff of adventure – a pan-species civilization known as the Synarche, pirates who live outside the system, aliens, AI shipminds, progenitor civilizations with archeological technology.  There is also a mild sense of humor, with onboard cats and a police ship named the “Synarche Justice Vessel I’ll Explain It To You Slowly.”

I’m not an afficionado of lengthy tomes such as George Elliot’s Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, to which Haimey pays homage, but it does seem to be the trend in space opera.  Action definitely picks up as the novel progresses.  I enjoyed this read, and would like to encourage Elizabeth Bear’s return from epic fantasy in the direction of science fiction.  The second book of White Space will apparently not be a sequel, but another story in the same universe.

I received an ebook advance reader copy from Saga Press (Simon & Schuster) through netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  The book had been released earlier, in March 2019.  I have previously read only a few of Elizabeth Bear’s novels – Dust (2007) and Hammered (2005).
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This had the makings of being everything I could want out of a space opera, but unfortunately, for my taste, it fell short. :/

The Good:

The writing was good! It took a casual tone, which can be a good thing when done right (it has its good and bad moments here). The science was on point, and you can tell that it was all well reseached. The vastness of the world is also interesting, even if I feel like it should have been executed differently.

There were some world building things here that were very interesting! Conflicting space governments, and space conspiracy? Cool. The idea of being able to control emotion/adrenaline responses? Also cool. That control leading to self-medicating and possibly addiction? Very cool (although could tread into some potentially bad territory when talking about dealing with recovery). Cats in space? Absolutely amazing!

The Bad:

The pacing was so off for so much of this! There are times where you get pages and pages of infodump about the world in this that simultaneously gives you no information that can help you actually understand what is going on, or what newly invented terms mean (although, this could just be me. At some point I did have a difficult time piecing together info because I just could not get into it). There are quite a few things that Bear chose to change (like what time measurements are called) that just made everything feel convoluted and gimmicky.  It felt like it was changed not to provide something different or relevant to the story, but to make it ~different~ from other books. It provided nothing but confusion for me.

The characters (especially the villains!) often felt flat, or stereotypical, and their interactions felt forced. There were so many witty lines or one liner type jokes throughout that, in my opinion, killed any tension.

Overall, I think this just wasn't to my taste. I can see what people would enjoy here, and I would recommend giving it a shot if you are interested!
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The characters in this book were all well written and the plot zips along nicely. Haimey is an engaging character  and its nice to be in her head to understand her thoughts and issues. The author obviously loves the word "atavistic," possibly too much as it seem to crop up with amazing regularity. Perhaps some other synonyms could be used so it doesn't seem so repetitive.. 
Overall a fun adventure.
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My first introduction to Elizabeth Bear was on the fantasy side with The Stone in the Skull, which I loved. I came in with high expectations for both prose and character development, and I'm pleased to say that Ancestral Night lived up to all my hopes on both counts! Where The Stone in the Skull had multiple points of view and broad-spanning political themes, Ancestral Night keeps things closer to home by following only one character: a traumatized young engineer named Haimey, who is part of the crew on a space salvage rig with a shipmind AI called Singer, a rather unfairly good-looking pilot, and two absolutely delightful cats named Mephistopheles and Bushyasta. 

The team has been tasked with a standard salvage operation: find a lost ship, bring it back in to the core. Said ship is a bit further out from the core than the team is used to being, and things start to go south early on when a second ship manages to brush up against the white space bubble they use to trick space into allowing faster-than-light travel. This is incredibly dangerous, and had they overlapped even a bit more both ships very likely would have been destroyed. Once they arrive at the site, they find not only the salvage ship they had been seeking out... but also the corpse of an Ativahika, a giant space-dwelling creature that's somewhat draconic in appearance. The ship itself has several major inconsistencies, including technology leftover from a hyper-advanced ancient civilization. Soon, Haimey and her team find that they are in over their heads. 

I was a little surprised by the writing style when I began reading. Rather than the traditional, lyrical prose I had read from Bear previously, Ancestral Night is written in a stream-of-consciousness narrative. It's conversational, often going off on slight tangents as Haimey describes her experiences. This serves to bring us closer to Haimey, allowing us to understand her motivations and thought processes on a personal level. 

Haimey's character arc is multi-layered due to a complex past. She grew up in a clade, a group of people who are programmed and controlled to share a purpose and maintain full emotional synchronicity.  While it's normal for humans to have a "fox" implanted to help them control their hormone levels and emotions, clades take this to an extreme. Haimey grew up without any conflict resolution skills, which made her ripe for abuse from bad faith actors who could manipulate that. Following a traumatic event in which exactly that occurred, she had to undergo a conditioning procedure that would allow her to function again as a normal human being. When some hard truths about her past are revealed, however, she finds that she's not and has never been the person she really thought she was. She looks inside only to see a stranger, an automaton, staring back. 

"If I’d been trying to do this without my fox, I think I would have been catatonic in the corner. Except I had done it without my fox. I had done all sorts of things without my fox, and while I’d been labile, weepy, angry, and generally deregulated with a head that was a no-fun place to live inside of, I had still done them. I had. Me. Or whoever I’d convinced myself to pretend to be while the person I’d been programmed to be was offline temporarily. Who the hell was I, anyway? You know, I had no idea."

And yet, it's not even as simple as that. Even if she accepts that she has in some way been programmed (by herself and by others), she can't simply brush that off as having erased her identity - not when she's friends with an AI who does this constantly. Is Singer, their ship, any less a person because he was made rather than born? Haimey has never thought so, and saying that's she's less because of it by implication states that Singer is less... which is not an acceptable conclusion, not at all. 

Given that a mere existential crisis isn't enough for Bear all on its own, it's worth mentioning that all of this is taking place while she's trapped on a rogue ship chock full of alien tech and in the control of a devastatingly attractive and morally grey pirate woman. 

"I don’t go in for the sexy bad-girl thing anymore, but . . . damn. The Republican pirate was charismatic in a way that reached right past all the rightminding safeguards on my emotions and hormones and made me want to get to know her better and bond and be best friends with her forever. You can turn off sex, and you can turn off romantic love—but it’s really hard to turn off all the human emotional responses to a powerful individual without also turning off your humanity."

The one aspect of this book that didn't work quite so well for me was the futuristic vernacular. Especially in the first third or so of the book, I found it to be a little opaque and inaccessible. Where I found myself immediately drawn in by RJ Barker's use of fantasy-inspired language in The Bone Ships, I found myself a little but off by Bear's. Fortunately, after an adjustment period, I found that it became easier and more natural to read. Realistically, even if I'd continued having trouble, I definitely would have powered through if only for the ridiculously adorably inclusion of cats in zero-g. 

As cats are wont to do, Mephistopheles and Bushyasta really do steal the show on a few occasions simply by being normal cats sans gravity. You can't tell me it's not stupidly cute to think of a cat floating around and snagging their claws into your sleeves to beg for a bite while you're eating dinner, nor can you claim that you wouldn't give them an ear-scritch or two. 

"The cats, meanwhile, had discovered one thing about gravity that pleased them, which was that they could sleep on top of humans, who were cushiony and warm. It’s good to serve a purpose, even if you can’t figure out what the alien tech is for."

In addition to the in-depth character work and themes of personhood, Bear has put enormous amounts of detail and effort into her worldbuilding. Both subtly and overtly, she introduces us to the alien governmental structures, the body modifications used in zero-g, and the many species that make up the known universe. Although I again found the language to be challenging at times, I can't fault the way she throws us into this strange new world. While concepts and social norms differ strongly from what the reader is familiar with, they're accepted (for the most part) as a mundane fact by the cast. That is not, however, to say that they're never questioned; in particular, Haimey is torn on laws governing AIs, even as she vehemently argues for practices that increase overall social wellbeing for both individuals and for groups.

"Democracy was a low-tech hack for putting this into practice. We have better hacks now. I guess it was the best they could do at the time. But it strikes me as a bad way, in the long term, of assuring both communal well-being and individual freedom of choice and expression, as the groups and individuals with the most social dominance will wind up getting their way—and enforcing their norms on everyone. Might as well go back to everybody squabbling over resources and living in stone castles and hitting each other with spears."

Based on my experience with The Stone in the Skull and its sequel, The Red-Stained Wings, I'm certain that Bear's next book in the White Space series will improve on these ideas and themes in every way. Bear is a slow burn that starts hot and only gets brighter as she goes.
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2.5 stars, Metaphorosis Reviews

Summary
Intending to scavenge whatever may be found off the main starways, Haimey, human partner Connla, and AI Singer find much more than they bargained for - a vast ship, a dead leviathan, alien technology, and more. Plus pirates, who threaten to take it all away, and put them all in danger.

Review
I've not read much Elizabeth Bear, but a while back, one of her short stories really struck me, so I was interested in this longer work. And I can say that it does have some strong elements - eventually.

Ancestral Night gets off to a very, very slow start. The world building is unclear, there's too little contexxt, and the book is chock-full of non-intuitive neologisms provided without context. Some I didn't really have a grip on until the final third of the book. It makes for hard going; I almost gave up at the end of chapter 1. Not only that, but the flood of neologisms make other elements harder to spot - afthands, for example. In addition, I never developed very much interest in the narrator's mysterious past, which gradually become more and more important to the plot. Even as it gradually unfolded, I never found I much cared about it. The slow start could have been cured with more attentive editing. The character issues are at the core of the story, and it just never worked for me. The narrator's sudden mood swings didn't help.

It's a shame the book didn't win me over, because it does have a host of clever - if somewhat familiar - tropes: giant, enigmatic creatures; interesting technology; ancient vessels. It's also got a fair share of good science jokes that I really enjoyed - which is odd, because some of the starship design is really poor, logical action is sometimes sacrificed to authorial drama, and there's some very thin McGyvering going on. The logic of the backstories is often vague at best. The prose is good. The characters - aside from backstory - are functional, but other than being updated to today's mores, you've seen most of them before. They also have a tendency to plunge - completely unprompted - into long, often very dull asides about government and philosophy. I'm not against those things per se - I do one of the two professionally - but as presented here, they put me off. Worse, several of the points and observations are repeated as if they were novel - poor editing again.

There's good material here, but it's lost in poor editing and thin characterization. The later books in the series - now that the basis is established - may go more smoothly, but I don't see continuing with them.

Note: Book received gratis in exchange for honest review.
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Saga Press was kind enough to pass this along via a digital ARC. This was an interesting read, to say the least. My biggest issue is in the pacing. We swing between being thrown in head first with slang and bits and bobs that are barely explained and that you have to figure out via context, to randomly skipping between writing out waiting long periods of time and deciding to skip forward with no real rhyme or reason. There are also times that character choices/affectations feel painfully pretentious, but that’s probably more a personal reaction (she reads TS Eliot and Regency novels during long travel!). The core story is intriguing, there are solid, amusing observations, the cats are good, as are the characters. It’s overall solid, but not anything that’s going to stick in my head long term. Definitely take a look when it comes out.
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I really enjoyed this book.  It was a classic science fiction novel.   Great plot and characters.  I look forward to the sequel.
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When a book has gay ladies and space, I'm usually totally on board. What Bear brings to the table beyond that is an intriguing and complicated story of autonomy and personhood, of trauma and choice, of purpose and will. But also the particular brand of weirdness that is necessitated by human people interacting with distinctly nonhuman people in space (things like surgically replacing your feet with hands to more easily maneuver in zero gravity - and making that an actual plot point as the characters' situations change).

The complexity and continuity truly was astounding. And Halmey's curiosity, ingenuity, and overall engineer-ness really endeared her to me as a character. Plus there are a lot of little moments that reveal what everyday life would be like in this crazy impractical universe - people still love their pets and disagree about how government should run and get hit on in seedy bars by completely unsuitable people. They just might also stumble upon am ancient wrong they might just be lucky and crazy enough to right.

The only real negative I have is that I felt like the book went on too long. There's a big stretch of time and two distinct sections of "waiting for a long time to pass" when I would rather have either cut out the waiting or skim over it quicker. Plus, I would have wanted to know more about certain aspects that start out as curiosities and turn into supremely convenient ways to break the rules of the universe. We get a little of it but not nearly enough.

Still, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for further work by this author because she certainly brings my favorite aspects of deep-space science fiction as well as some very interesting and completely unique ideas.
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Ancestral Night is a story set in the far reaches of outer space in some future time where most civilized entities have been engulfed into a loose organization ( the Federation, anyone), but on the outskirts are space pirates who shun artificial intelligence and group conformity as well as surviving remnants of ancient races barely recognizable as sentient beings.  The star of the story along with her pilot and her  AI shipmind work off their debts as a salvage crew.  There are shades of 2001 Space Odyssey with an ancient space artifact holding countless secrets, shades of Leto Atreides changing his skin and becoming something new and different, and shades of every space pirate chase story.  In the end though, Bear 🐻 has given us something new and different and at times fascinating.  

But, if you are opening this thinking high-action space opera, be forewarned that the female-centered narrative is quite chatty and often slips into streams of consciousness.  It's all interesting and worth reading, but there's lots of extra info and it's simply not the condensed version.
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This book takes off running, offering little explanation and a lot of unfamiliar terms, but I know to expect that from science fiction and I vastly prefer it to pages of tedious infodumping. The world of Ancestral Night was introduced gradually and, for the most part, seamlessly. I often cringe when authors invent their own future slang because so few can pull it off effectively. Elizabeth Bear is one of the few; her future slang fits the tone of the book and clearly involved a lot of careful consideration. The names she comes up with for characters and species were appropriately strange without being unpronounceable.

I was ambivalent about the book’s protagonist, Haimey Dz. She had an extremely cliché personality for a female science fiction protagonist: She’s independent, she’s practical, she’s tough, she’s snarky, she’s got a rough past and emotional issues... she’s not anything I haven’t seen a million times before. Her first-person narration went off on tangents so frequently that it was difficult to follow what was happening at any given moment. I adjusted to her narration style after a few chapters, but I would have enjoyed myself a lot more if it had been more focused. I did appreciate the development Haimey goes through over the course of the plot; she becomes more relatable and less cliché.

I commend Bear on the diversity in her cast of characters. I don’t understand why anyone would even bother writing science fiction that wasn’t diverse; it’s just not believable. We start out the book with Haimey, a female human salvager and a black lesbian; her business partner, Connla, a pansexual male human salvager; and their “shipmind,” Singer, a male-identifying artificial intelligence. There are more exciting and diverse side characters introduced later in the story but I won’t give too much away. Bear’s dialogue left much to be desired, frequently spinning off topic and descending into philosophical, political, or scientific discourses that added little to the plot. Combined with Haimey’s narration, it made me want to scream “get on with it, already!” more times than I can count.

Despite these obstacles, something about Bear’s writing style made it so easy to keep reading. The plot was incredibly slow-paced, yet for the most part I wasn’t bored. Ancestral Night had so many characteristics that seemed specifically designed to appeal to me: space travel, friendship, mystery, lesbians, ancient aliens, utopian societies. It was worth the read, even if it didn’t end up becoming a favorite.
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Ancestral Night is a complex space opera that tackles many current political and philosophical topics of today.

I must admit it starts out slow and took quite a while for my interest in the characters plight to spark to life. Bear’s writing is a very descriptive. The concepts, world building and execution was mind blowing.

This is not a nail biting, non-stop action read but one that takes pondering, concentrations and reflecting on the character choices, circumstances and differences.

Overall, nothing like I thought it would be but easily reflects many of today’s situations, political hot spots and turmoil.

I received this ARC copy of Ancestral Night from Saga Press. This is my honest and voluntary review.

My Rating: 3.5 stars
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A solid space opera in which salvagers discover that an alien race, supposedly long-dead, isn't, and that the historiography of their universe has been covering up quite a bit of information. There are some invented terms and jargon for readers to work out and get, as well as some physics, and the characters didn't feel completely developed, but a lot of SFF fans will enjoy it.
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