Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Title: Ancestral Night.
Series: White Space #1.
Writer(s): Elizabeth Bear.
Publisher: Saga Press.
Format: Hardcover.
Release Date: March 5th 2019.
Pages: 512.
Genre(s): Science-Fiction.
ISBN13:  9781534402980.
My Overall Rating: ★★★★☆.


To imagine the future is a challenge that can be quite daunting. The intricate details that allow us to distinguish what is possible in the years to come from what is of the domain of dreams are what help sell worlds and universes to a reader. Without falling into a trap where too much exposition gives you more elements to marinate in and question its authenticity, some authors are able to paint a much more self-contained and genuine cosmos rather than delivering a universe that drowns in overwhelming extravagance. With Elizabeth Bear’s latest series, she presents readers with a space opera that challenges its readers with huge ideas and philosophies that are all conveyed through a single character who remains the driving force of the entire novel. There’s no denying that my time within Elizabeth Bear’s latest world has been nothing but immersive. In fact, that would be an understatement.

What is Ancestral Night about? The story follows space engineer and salvager Halmey Dz, her space pilot and comrade Connla Kurucz as well as her AI spaceship Singer in an excavation through space that leads them to discover alien vessels. However, the encounter with an unknown parasite brings Halmey Dz to adapt her activities according to her newly-attached friend. While it is more than meets the eye, this entity brings the squad to learn new details on its nature and Halmey to walk down a path of discovery filled with introspection and self-discovery. Things become a bit more complicated when the stakes are quintupled with the introduction of space pirates and the danger that they come with. Ancestral Night isn’t your usual space opera as its character-driven narrative allows Elizabeth Bear to deliver a metaphysical commentary on human lifeforms and invite the reader to ponder philosophical questions around individuals, societies, technology and politics.


The inconspicuous debate on nature versus nurture has settled down over the years to give way to existential questions that bring individuals to simmer in these waters during long periods of reflection. It remains, however, a wonderful idea to exploit to further dissect humans and their complicated behaviours. The personality of each individual is a staple example of the complexity of mankind as each person is identified by singular traits that often bloom within them at a very young age. While some are able to modulate their behaviours and attitudes throughout life, others embrace them and live on with what they assume they are.

But what happens when a certain technology allows you to regulate your emotions, thus adapting your personality according to your situation and preferences? With the help of a sensorium, protagonist Halmey Dz is able to request from her AI spaceship any dose of chemicals to affect and regulate her emotional, psychological and physical state. Elizabeth Bear’s effortless story-telling skills allow her to discuss such a system within her narrative to propel this story in incredibly engaging and thought-provoking directions that allow the reader to look beyond the first degree throughout this space opera. Her ambitious ideas are brilliantly developed and give her story the intellectual edge that is rarely seen within this genre.

Although her futuristic ideas and accent on atavism garner a lot of attention throughout the story, the main arc remains character-centric and delivers a moderately-paced space chase with specks of political ideas that keep the adventure alive and dynamic. The banter between the main crew is also filled with cynical and sarcastic overtones that convey a long-standing camaraderie and stimulates the readers’ sense of belonging among these space adventurers confined within a vast universe filled with mysterious creatures and artifacts. While the protagonist does sometimes digress on certain ideas and stretch out the story unnecessarily, the overall story progresses in creative and alluring ways.

Ancestral Night is a riveting and ingenious space opera that delivers a character-driven story centered around identity and an original universe that takes a life of its own through excellent characterization and world-building.



Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada and Saga Press for sending me a copy for review!



32 thoughts on “Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

  1. Thanks, interesting review!

    Have you read any of her other books? If so, how does it compare?

    The regulation of emotions seems to be lifted right out of Banks. Are there other similarities?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I have been meaning to give her other novels a shot, especially her fantasy books. It was also pretty cool to discover that she’s married to Scott Lynch, author of a series I adore too. I can’t tell if the idea of technology that allows you to regulate emotional states is something that was already used in other novels but based on Bookstooge’s recommendation, I guess it’s fair to say it’s not new. Any other elements within the story that might be similar to other novels is unknown to me.


  2. If the whole emotion control thing interested in, you might want to check out Linda Nagata’s trilogy, The Red. It is nearfuture military sf and is very well done.

    I also like the sound of following a smaller cast of characters. I just started Malice by Gwynne and before I was at the 10% mark I already had a list of over 30 named characters. Not even Jordan & Sanderson did/do that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll definitely look into it in that case. I do love sci-fi stories that have such angles to slightly complexify things.

      Hahahah I do remember reading Malice and how enormous the cast was. I generally do have a tough time with series with that many characters too since I don’t take notes on the character names and I don’t always read for long periods of time… at a time… Happy reading, nonetheless!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, i dunno if it’s hungarian day today, or what, but it’s the third time since this morning that i come across something “hun” related. A name in this case 😀
    This sounds like my sort of book, i daresay. I love space operas, especially ones filled with sarcastic, wieseass characters 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Damn Lashaan this seems really complex! You frightened me with your “huge ideas and philosophy” overwhelming extravagance etc! But I am so happy that you enjoyed this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve heard her once on a podcast, never read anything, but this sounds very interesting, I’ll write it down for when I need some smart s/f 🙂 Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, it’s the thing that allows you to link your name to your website. For example, whenever you leave a comment, we cab click your name and get to your website easily. Right now, it was set to your old domain so I actually thought you shut down your blog or something 😬😂

        Liked by 1 person

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