A Fantastic New Space Opera Saga Dawns in Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Elizabeth Bear is a master of disguise. If you’ve spent any time with her enormous back catalog, you know that the only thing you can expect from her is to be surprised and delighted by how different each new book is from the one that preceded it. Since winning the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, she has published dozens of novels and even more short stories, jumping between genres and styles with apparent ease. Certainly not just any writer can publish one of the best epic fantasy series of the past decade (The Eternal Sky trilogy and its ongoing pseudo-sequel series, which began with The Stone in the Skull), take a pitstop in steampunk for a book or two, and then follow up with a big, bold science fiction saga poised to fill the void left by the James S.A. Corey’s soon-to-conclude series The Expanse.

Bear’s latest, the chunky space opera Ancestral Night, does just that. It travels familiar trade routes, but does so with aplomb, effortlessly separating itself from the crowd of new books in a resurgent subgenre.

Haimey Dz is a salvager. Alongside her sentient ship’s AI, Singer, and her long-time business partner Connla, she travels the edges of the Milky Way recovering lost and derelict vessels. It makes for a scrappy living, but it also keeps her far ahead of her past. When the crew explores a promising find—an ancient alien ship floating in a dark corner of the galaxy—Haimey investigates, and is infected with a mysterious, and strangely useful, parasite that grants her the ability to see the underlying structure of the universe. Unfortunately, it also makes the crew a target. Suddenly, they find themselves on the run, fleeing an aggressive band of space pirates able to track their ship through white space (a clever take on FTL), and the Synarche government itself.

Told from Haimey’s first-person point of view, Ancestral Night is bursting with character. Haimey is at once hilarious and principled by her own ethics, and makes for a richly complex narrator. She’s easy to root for, but more than that, her past experiences—her prejudices, dreams, and history—lend color to the narrative as it explodes around her. She can be reserved and aloof, too comfortable with her small crew and in the confines of her tiny salvaging ship, but she also connects deeply with the people she cares for, turning a light toward facets of their personalities that might otherwise remain hidden.

Ancestral Night is chock full of great worldbuilding, supported by thematic explorations of politics, humanity, society, and individualism. Readers familiar with space opera will recognize the far-future web of intermingling galactic species, and the concept of an overall governing body connecting them—here, the Synarche—all is certainly not new, but Bear weaves together these disparate elements (Haimey’s antipathy to drugs and body mods, the Synarche’s underpinnings and their affects on the individualism of AIs, the logistical implications of species from planets with different atmospheres and gravities cohabiting) in ways that make them feel fresh. Rather than seeming like a jumble of SFnal ideas, the universe builds upon itself in believable ways.

As it does in all of her work, Bear’s prose does double-duty, using exposition to worldbuild, inject humor, shape the characters, and establish the monumental stakes. One of my favorite early passages manages to be informative, interesting, and funny all at once:

I looked down along the distorted Sagittarius Arm of the great barred spiral that sprawled across the entirety of our southern horizon.

Yes, space doesn’t have directions, exactly, but let’s be honest here: prepositions and directions are so much easier to use than made-up words, and it’s not like the first object somebody called a phone involved a cochlear nanoplant and a nanoskin graft with a touch screen on it, either. So those of us who work here just pretend we’re nice and know better, and commend the nitpickers to the same hell as people who hold strong and condescending opinions about the plural of the word octopus. (Ch. 2)

This is an example of Bear’s no-apologies take on space opera: as the author, she doesn’t apologize for choosing when to stick to strict science, and when to hand-wave in favor of a better story. The balance between the expected scientific density of space opera and the approachable, easy-to-read voice means Ancestral Night will connect with all sorts of readers.

The novel presents a far-future vision of humanity that is diverse and unshackled by modern prejudices and social limitations. Haimey lives at a time when humans (and most sentient species, of which there are many in the the Synarche) are able to tune their emotions and physiology with drugs, controlling their behavior and proclivities at will. There’s obvious room for abuse, but Bear also explores the challenges and benefits of allowing people to feel or be anything they want. As a child, Haimey lived within an all-woman clade whose citizens were tuned to an almost hive-mind like dependance on one another. The present-day conflicts—both internal and external—that arise throughout the novel due to her pushback against her upbringing are both riveting and compelling. Nestled deep in the narrative’s core—permeating all of its worldbuilding, conflicts, and themes—is an exploration of free will and sentience.

Ancestral Night‘s tropes are the basic building blocks of genre—galaxy-spanning mysteries, pirates and rogues, long-lost alien tech, hyperspace travel, harrowing space combat—but Bear deploys them with expert precision. Imagine James S.A. Corey at his snarkiest, plus the bold sci-fi invention of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, topped off with the rich characterization of Lois McMaster Bujold. The result is both familiar and wholly unique, managing a precarious balance between huge SFnal ideas—just wait until you find out about the Ativahika, an alien species whose abilities and appearance will boggle your mind—and an imminently approachable style, thanks to Haimey’s roguish narrative voice.

Bear’s first sci-fi novel in more than a decade has everything going for it: big space battles, thrilling action, a scrappy crew, and huge mysteries with galaxy-wide implications. Ancestral Night is space opera at its best and boldest, making you think hard even as it gets your blood pumping and your imagination flowing.

Ancestral Night is available now.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Deep Space Salvagers, an Internet Apocalypse, and Telepathic Weapons

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear 
After a decade spent exploring worlds of fantasy and steampunk, Elizabeth Bear launches a new series with a seriously epic space opera flavor. Halmey Dz is an engineer on a slightly sketchy salvage ship, part of a crew that stays just clear of the law in their quest to eke out a living. While exploring a derelict ship, Halmey is infected by something alien, and finds she has a whole new level of perception that grants her understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe—which makes her an incredibly valuable prize for those with the will to exploit her abilities. Halmey is pursued by the government and a group of ruthless pirates, all of whom want to control her and her new power. She and her crewmates make a run for it—but the pursuit leads them into an even bigger mystery involving an alien ship trapped in a black hole at the center of the galaxy. And that’s just the beginning. The first book in the White Space saga may be Bear’s best science fiction novel yet, and that’s certainly saying something.

Wild Country, by Anne Bishop
Ann Bishop returns to the World of the Other with this standalone followup to Lake Silence. Jana Paniccia is hired on as deputy to a Wolfgard sheriff in Bennett, a ghost town in which all the humans were killed in retaliation for a strike against the terra indigene. Bennett is being resettled as a place where both humans and Others will co-exist. As stores are reopened and a functioning government is established, the activity attracts the attention of the Blackstone Clan, a group of outlaw humans who seek only profit for themselves. Unfortunately, that means the resolve and bonds of friendship in Bennett will be tested much sooner than anyone expected. Bishop’s Others marks a high point in the urban fantasy genre, and this sequence of self-contained followups is a brilliant way of allowing readers to spend more time in that world without diluting the ending of the original series.

Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K. Chess
Time travel, metafiction, and the post-apocalyptic collide in K. Chess’s debut novel, an exploration of racism and the plight of immigrant communities with a Philip K. Dickian twist. In the near future, a nuclear disaster ravages an alternate version of the United States, and 156,000 people are given the chance to flee the chaos through a dimensional gate that allows them to travel into a parallel universe—ours—carrying only the few scant possessions they were able to cram into a backpack. The refugees must attempt to adjust to a world that is almost, but crucially not exactly, like the one they left. One of them, Vikram, most treasures the only copy of a book that doesn’t exist in our world, which he brought with him across dimensions. When it is stolen, his friend (and fellow “universally displaced person”) Hel is willing to do whatever it takes to recover it, fearing its loss represents more than the erasure of a single book, but of the entire world she once knew. With excerpts of the fictional text, The Pyronauts, scattered throughout and a setting that viscerally recreates modern, gentrifying NYC, this is an intriguing debut from a new writer worth watching.

The Women’s War, by Jenna Glass
Jenna Glass’s debut is the first in a planned series set in a world in which women are treated as inconvenient necessities. The “disgraced” women of the Kingdom of Aaltah are sent away to the Abbey of the Unwanted, led by Abbess Alysoon Rai-Brynna. The women of the Abbey survive by selling both magical potions and themselves. Their bitter existence swells into a resistance led by Rai-Brynna—a mother, a widow, and the shunned daughter of a king. Rai-Brynna leads a ritual that shifts the balance of power in the world, granting women the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies—and to protect themselves from rape with violent magic. As the male population of Aaltah boils over in angry retaliation, Alysoon explores the limits of this new magic, as the personal and political plots intertwine in subtle ways, and society reacts to the new world order. It’s a compelling fantasy epic for the #MeToo era.

Alice Payne Rides, by Kate Heartfield
The followup to last year’s Alice Payne Arrives, a 2018 Nebula nominee for Best Novella continues this time-twisting feminist adventure series. Returning from a jaunt to the 13th century, ex-highwaywoman turned time-hopping problem-solver Alice Payne and her team discover they have accidentally brought a deadly strain of smallpox home to the 1780s, and introduced a new front in a temporal war being aged across centuries. Filled with delightful anachronism and delivered in a witty, knowing narrative voice, this series is proving to be historically entertaining.

The Wall, by John Lanchester
A wall that acts as both a means of both protection and a force of control lies at the center of this post-apocalyptic literary novel, set on an island nation in a ravaged, flooded future. Joseph Kavanagh is a defender on the wall that surrounds his coastal community, ostensibly keeping it safe from the drowning hordes without. Should he fail at his duties during his mandatory two years of service, he risks being cast out himself, but that knowledge doesn’t do anything to combat the tedium of defending a wall that never seems to suffer an attack. Joseph takes part in war games and considers starting a family with one of his fellow defenders (as parents are exempted from service), trying to ignore whispers and rumors that the “others” outside the wall are coordinating a massive attack with the aide of traitors on the inside. The striking resonance of the various plot threads—xenophobia and the unrest caused by climate change among them—lends the novel additional weight.

Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan
Maughan offers a biting vision of the future after in the wake of a techno-apocalypse, unfolding both sides of a story set before and after the fall. Before: hacker and activist Rushdi Manaan establishes the Croft, an island voluntarily cut off from the internet and the corporate surveillance culture. Populated by a group of artists and rebels, The Core is soon falling apart due to internal strife—but then a group of terrorists unleash an attack that destroys the internet and every device connected to it. After: the world economy has collapsed, and the Croft has morphed into the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, where a girl named Mary sees visions of ghosts and others trade the ancient remnants of analog pre-Internet tech to survive. When a newcomer named Anika arrives bearing secrets the crash, the puzzle of what happened to the world—and why—begins to come into focus. As he explores the contrast between the mad, cyberpunk decadence of Before and the desolate wasteland of After, Maughan will change the way you look at the modern world—and the future we’re rushing into.

That Ain’t Witchcraft, by Seanan McGuire
The eighth book in the InCryptids urban fantasy series, which follows the Prices, a family of cryptozoologists who defy centuries of monster-slaying tradition, choosing instead to try to keep the peace between the modern world and the magical creatures of legend who live hidden alongside it. The youngest member of the Price family, Antimony, is in a bind: wanted by the Covenant of St. George (the group that would rather cryptids be put down, not coddled) and in debt to supernatural forces, she is hiding out in the the tiny town of New Gravesend, Maine and trying to avoid the fact that she’s been ordered to kill a man who has run afoul of the crossroads. Antimony doesn’t usually kill humans, but if she’s able to pay off her debt, she’ll be able to rejoin her family. McGuire continues to prove there’s a lot of life left in urban fantasy with another fast and fun installment of the Hugo-nominated series.

Mahimata, by Rati Mehrotra
The followup to last year’s Markswoman returns to a post-apocalyptic Asia (known in-world as Asiana) whose history has been totally rewritten—as its population vastly reduced—by a terrible war. Justice in this world is brutal, with judicial executions carried out by an order of specially trained female assassins who have psychic powers that link them to their daggers (the explanation for these and other elements of the worldbuilding threaten to push the quasi-fantasy series into outright sci-fi). In the wake of the events of the first novel, Markswoman Kyra Veer is one of the surviving members of the Order of Kali, which suffered a brutal massacre carried out by the rebel Kai Tau and his army of followers wielding telepathically controlled firearms. Seeking revenge, Kyra forges alliances where she can, including with a man named Rustan, from a counterpart Order of male assassins, who is still recovering from his shame at having killed an innocent person. Together, the two will delve into the secrets of the ancient alien technology that has shaped their world as they try to defeat Kai Tau and chart a course toward a better future.

The Bayern Agenda, by Dan Moren
Star Trek meets Mission: Impossible in the first novel of Dan Moren’s Galactic Cold War series, which takes place in the same universe as his debut The Caldonian Gambit. Simon Kovalic, an agent of the Commonwealth of Independent Systems, is tasked with an undercover mission to determine the motives of the massive Bayern Corporation in seeking a relationship with the Illyrican Empire, foe to the Commonwealth. An unfortunate injury forces him to hand off that responsibility to his ex-wife, Natalie Taylor, and her team. As that mission quickly goes sideways and upside down, flashbacks reveal the secrets of Simon’s past. Chase sequences, science fiction spycraft, and sharp-tongued characters take the spotlight in this satisfyingly light, fast-moving adventure.

Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi
Though Helen Oyeyemi’s lyrical works hew closer to the traditionally “literary” side of fantasy, she’s also the type of writer who proves that genre snobbery can cut both ways, and really shouldn’t matter; there is enough strange magic in them to satisfy fans of the fantastical, and enough grounded richnesses of character and emotion to please those who look to those elements first and foremost. Certainly any type of reader will be bewitched by her prose, which draws you with a comforting embrace in this story of a British schoolgirl name Perdita Lee, who is blessed with the family talent of baking an oddly alluring variety of gingerbread that supposedly has been passed down through generations from their ancestral home country of Druhástrana—which doesn’t seem to exist in the modern world. After her mother attempts suicide, Harriet is prompted to delve into her past and discover the tragic secrets baked into her DNA like so much cinnamon and cloves.

Pure Chocolate, by Amber Royer
The sequel to Free Chocolate returns to a nearish-future Earth transformed by its introduction to a wider galaxy teeming with alien life—and cut down to size by the fact that we have nothing to offer other worlds save for delicious, delicious chocolate—for another space opera-meets-soap opera adventure. Having already uncovered one conspiracy against her homeworld, Earth’s premiere celebrity chef Bo Bonitez is on a goodwill tour of Zant, a planet filled with the carniverous aliens who recently were trying to make a meal out of her. But when she leans Earth has been delivering a corrupt supply of cocoa to its many non-human customers, she’s faced with a difficult decision: expose the plot to prevent further harm, and bring down a galaxy’s worth of wrath on her planet; or keep mum and pretend she doesn’t know anything. That she’s dealing with her own (literal) chocolate addiction isn’t helping matters.

Today I Am Carey, by Martin L. Shoemaker 
This expanded version of Shoemaker’s short story ‛Today I Am Paul” (a 2015 Nebula nominee) tells the story of an android named Carey, and its years of varying interactions with the Owens family. Brought in to care for the elderly Mildred, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, Carey unexpectedly attains sentience—the first android to do so. When Mildred dies, Carey stays on with the Owens’, caring for the young Millie. As Carey bonds with Millie, it struggles with the passage of time, and the way the Owens’ change, evolve, and die. Carey doesn’t age, but it also changes and evolves as its experiences alter the very core of its being. This is a moving, richly-detailed story of an intelligence coming into an understanding of itself.

If This Goes On: The Science Fiction Future of Today’s Politics, edited by Cat Rambo
From a Kickstarter to bookstores everywhere: Award-winning author and editor Cat Rambo has assembled a impressive lineup of 30 established and up-and-coming authors for this anthology of stories inspired by the upheaval of modern politics. What will the world of tomorrow look like if we can’t get the tumult of today under control? Is there any cause for hope, or are we a lost cause? Oft-award-nominated, much-anthologized authors like E. Lily Yu, Steven Barnes, Nisi Shawl, Andy Duncan, Nick Mamatas, and Sarah Pinsker pepper the table of contents,and each story includes a brief afterward from the editor.

What new sci-fi & fantasy books are on your list this week?

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