Space Opera | Book Review: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

It’s always fun to start a new space opera! There is so much to discover; new aliens to meet, new technology to experience and all the world-building that comes with an epic book. Ancestral Night has all of this and more! This will be a spoiler free review, so you can read on!

Right off the bat I’ll say that this book was not what I expected it to be. Reading the blurb I had something else in mind. This isn’t me saying this was a poor book, just different. It’s embarrassing to say but this was my first Elizabeth Bear book ever. Ancestral Night is book 1 of the White Space trilogy so there are two more books of wonder to come in the near future.

Earth could have learned a long time ago that securing initial and ongoing consent, rather than attempting to assert hierarchy, is key to a nonconfrontational relationship. Because we’re basically primates, we had to wait for a bunch of aliens to come teach us.

Elizabeth Bear

Our protagonist, Haimey, is a ship engineer along with her pilot Connla and the ship mind, Singer all working for the Synarche. They are on a routine salvage operation when they come across the scene of a great crime. This is where the plot begins and slowly some history of the Synarche is revealed. The crime leads our ragtag crew to a treasure hunt and the peace in the galaxy at stake.

Let me just start by saying that the world-building is great. We are introduced to the society the story is based in; the Synarche. While it has been described in the greatest of detail, from afar it feels like the Federation; an alliance of various species working together for a better life. Humans are a fairly new addition to the Synarche so we are not the center of the galaxy here! Phew.

The worlds of the Synarche are filled with astounding aliens in all shapes and forms, some large enough to traverse space on their own. We meet a fair few species in this book and assume more will be revealed in future books. Haimey, like many others has cyber implants in her which control the environment around her and control her body from within. A lot of it reminds me of how people in the Culture live with the main difference being that AI are not in charge. There is a lot of commentary throughout the book on society, freedom and what it means to be a citizen of the Synarche. There are some tough discussions where it is not clear whether our protagonist is in the right or not but these only enhance the experience of the book.

This is also where the book might turn off people expecting only an action packed space opera. This is definitely not a ‘large space battles’ kind of book, but there is enough foreshadowing for it!

“I don’t want what you want,” I said. “And I’m not going to help you. I don’t even want to argue with you, because while I know that human beings are capable of assimilating, adopting, internalizing, integrating, and identifying with new sets of ideas—because we have, multiple times in the history of the species—I’ve discovered that I don’t actually care what you think, because you are an awful person and you want awful things.

Elizabeth Bear

While I enjoyed the book, the one thing it really lacked was a sense of urgency. The plot itself revolves around a time based objective and it should seem like a catastrophic scenario but the writing just doesn’t show it that way. It just feels, relaxed. This did make the book a bit slow to read around the middle but the plot is interesting enough to keep you hooked.

I definitely recommend this book as an addition to your space opera collection!