I finally finished Elizabeth Bear’s book Ancestral Night a while back, and it’s a really superb work of space opera, one that did a lot of interesting things. It’s set in a distant future where humanity is part of a larger, galactic civilization, and where everyone pretty much gets along. There’s no real big war that’s driving humanity against a plethora of alien civilizations: they’re coexisting as best they can. The novel follows a team of space salvage operators, Halmey Dz, her partner Connla Kurucz, and their AI, Singer. They’ve had a rough go of it in recent years, and they search space for lost wreckage, hoping to score it big. They end up finding a massive alien ship, and a terrible secret onboard, which puts them into the path of a band of space pirates, and galactic authorities.
There’s a real retro feel to this book, but one with a nicely modernized set of sensibilities. Bear includes everything from commentary about the value of communities, includes plenty of LGBTQ characters, and muses on the nature of intelligence and nature vs. nurture, especially when it comes to augmentation and free will. Halmey comes from a particular cult that focuses on consensus decision-making, and was involved in a terrorist plot earlier in her life, and has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since. She’s constantly trying to find her place in the universe, and a good part of the book is how she’s re-learning who she is after a pretty traumatic past. She’s an excellent character, as are her two companions — especially Singer.
While I loved all of the component parts of the book, there was one big flaw: there’s a lot going on and it feels really unfocused at points. Bear throws a lot of good stuff in there, and I’m not sure it always meshed. At one point, Hamley gets stuck on an alien ship with a pirate, and they spend a lot of time talking and going over her past. It’s interesting stuff, but it slowed the book down, and felt a little out of place — almost like it could have been the focus of another novel set in the same world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it isn’t poorly executed; it just feels as though the book could have been slimmed down just a tad. It took me a little longer than I would have expected, given the subject matter and story. Folks who liked Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series or James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series will love this one.