Elizabeth Bear is one of my favourite authors. I loved Karen Memory with my entire heart (steampunk Seattle noir with badass lesbian prostitutes and giant mecha sewing machines – if you haven’t read it, you gotta!), and when I was lucky enough to meet her at a Gollancz event a couple of years ago, she’s just the nicest, funniest person and I kind of want to be her when I grow up. Anyway. I was thrilled to be offered a spot on this blog tour for her newest book, Ancestral Night, which is a huge, sweeping space opera. It’s SO good.
Book: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent by publisher for review. All opinions my own.
Haimey Dz thinks she knows what she wants.
She thinks she knows who she is.
She is wrong.
A routine salvage mission uncovers evidence of a terrible crime and relics of powerful ancient technology. Haimey and her small crew run afoul of pirates at the outer limits of the Milky Way, and find themselves on the run and in possession of universe-changing information.
When authorities prove corrupt, Haimey realizes that she is the only one who can protect her galaxy-spanning civilization from the implications of this ancient technology—and the revolutionaries who want to use it for terror and war. Her quest will take her careening from the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core to the infinite, empty spaces at its edge.
To save everything that matters, she will need to uncover the secrets of ancient intelligences lost to time—and her own lost secrets, which she will wish had remained hidden from her forever.
This book ticked all of my Farscape-loving, hard-sci-fi-hating boxes. It’s sciency and spaceshippy and grand, sure, but it’s got such a fabulous cast of characters that feel completely real. It’s nuanced, and beautifully drawn, and reminds me of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, not for any particular reason, just for the fact that it’s got an amazing sense of culture and reality to the world it’s set in. It has the feel of the best short stories from those yellow-spined 60s and 70s sci-fi anthologies – it’s hopeful and thoughtful and harsh and beautiful and so very human. There are nods to Bear’s generation-ship Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, but this feels entirely standalone and you need no previous knowledge to get into it (can’t wait for the sequel though!).
Haimey is a wonderful narrator – from the get-go she feels like a friend telling you a wild story in a bar over a couple of drinks. Though there’s a lot of slang and new culture to learn, of course, but even though Haimey never stops to explain or info-dump, it’s seamlessly worked into context so that you aren’t left guessing. She jokes around with you, goes off on wild trains of thought, and generally doesn’t feel as though she’s holding anything back – though of course, that might be what she wants you to think. I loved how very aware of her own biology she was, too – this is a society that’s worked out how to control hormones and psychological impulses, and though the norm seems to be just to control everything to keep yourself on an even keel, Haimey’s background has meant that she is very aware of how her feelings can affect her both positively and negatively. It’s fascinating to be in her head and have her view on everything.
Oh gosh, I just really loved Haimey. She’s been through so much trauma, including an abusive, gaslighting relationship (and boy, does Haimey/Bear spit some truth about the effects that can have on you). She likes women, but turned her sex-drive off because it was inconvenient. She snarks about 19th century novels, cats, and the practicalities of spaceship design; she’s smart, but wounded, but putting herself back together. Also, I mentioned cats – I adored the cats on board the spaceship! Cats are cats wherever they happen to be, and their interactions with the crew were so cute and funny. (Are you following the Wijktory Kjittens, Elizabeth Bear’s cats? If not, you should be.) Basically every book can be improved with the addition of cats, but I never knew I needed spaceship cats before now! Most of my favourite sci-fi also has AIs with awesome personalities, and Singer is no exception. I love him so much. Nerd.
You’ll notice I’m not talking much about the plot here, and that is intentional. To do it justice, I’d need to explain the whole expansive, philosophical, wonderful book, and if I’m going to do that you might as well read it! It touches on so many things that it would be mad to try to list them all. This is a whole universe of plot, and although the story unfolds at an exciting clip, it’s about experiencing that universe alongside these characters. It reads simultaneously really fast and really slowly, kind of like your own life, and I found myself wanting to highlight phrases on every page, because the wit and the sharp skewering of bullshit is just wonderful. Pirates and moral philosophy and giant praying mantises and questions of humanity and zero-G litterboxes and thoughtful explorations of PTSD and dangerous expeditions into space and gender diversity on a huge scale and humour and adventure and brilliance. This book is astonishingly good. Mum, Justine, other sci-fi queens – you’re gonna love this.
Five out of five (space) cats!!