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The Howling Stones
Humanx Commonwealth #16
by Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, 331pp
Published: January 1997

Having finished the 'Icerigger' trilogy, the next Humanx Commonwealth novel written by Alan Dean Foster is a standalone effort, 'The Howling Stones', a late novel in the internal chronology, sitting between the 12th and 13th in the Pip & Flinx series. So that's this month's read.

I liked this one but oddly feel that it both moves a little away from what Foster is best at and bears strong comparisons to an earlier novel. Yeah, I need to explain that, I'm sure. The comparisons are to 'Sentenced to Prism', the prior standalone novel, written a full dozen years earlier: both books feature a very capable but socially problematic male lead who's sent to take care of a special problem on a newly discovered planet, where they promptly discover that the native population does something weird and wonderful that shakes up their perspectives on the universe.

Here, that lead is Pulickel Tomochelor, a more modest fixer than Evan Orgell in Sentenced to Prism, but just as capable. He's never met a conundrum he's unable to solve and he's going to be up against one on the newly discovered world of Senisran which, like Cachalot, is an ocean planet, with its native population of Seni spread over an abundance of islands. Well, there are two problems, actually, because the first has an important complication.

The direct task at hand, as a trained and experienced xenologist, is to talk the locals on the island of Parramat into signing a treaty with the Humanx Commonwealth for rights to mine the rare earth metals abundant on Senisran. While other Seni populations are onboard, the Parramati have stubbornly said that they can't do that. They're happy with a primitive level of technology and are unwilling to change that, because doing so would go against "kusum". What's kusum? Good question. What's more, they have zero leaders to talk to, merely "big people" who are respected more than others without any obvious way to know why.

The complication is that Senisran has also been discovered by the AAnn, so a race has developed between the Commonwealth and the Empire about converting the Seni to their particular mindset. And, of course, being in a race with a hostile species like the AAnn can be a dangerous proposition. Tomochelor is therefore tasked not only with persuading the Seni on Parramat to join with the Humanx Commonwealth but at the same time with dissuading them from going with the AAnn instead.

Just as Even Orgell was very good at his job in Sentenced to Prism, our lead here is very good at his. Orgell's character flaw was arrogance, being very aware of his talents and looking down on those with fewer. Tomochelor's is a less obnoxious trait: he just can't translate his talents in problem solving to dealing with the fairer sex. And that means that his contact on Senisran, currently running the local xenological contact station, is a rather lovely young lady with the rather lovely name of Fawn Seaforth.

Initially things don't go well at all. At their first meeting, she's wearing a skimpy bikini rather than anything businesslike, though she does save his life shortly afterwards. She doesn't follow a lot of regulations by the book and he's irritable in pointing it out. The two don't seem to be particularly compatible, but they have to work together at this tough task and, at least, Seaforth proves capable at her job. That's particularly good because we soon discover that Tomochelor has a second mission, namely to write a performance evaluation on her, and how that will turn out is up for grabs.

But, of course, we have a whole novel to go and, as with any novel with Alan Dean Foster's name on the front, things evolve considerably. I like how that happens here, because it's gentle and leisurely but sure and steady. And, of course, things get really interesting when the stones of the title arrive in the story. It seems that the Seni on Parramat have a collection of stones to use in a variety of rituals and, as befits the objects that give their name to the title of a novel, they turn out to be far more than the simple rocks that they initially appear to be.

And, of course, that shakes everything up because once the secret is out, a new race begins to gain the power of the stones that's wielded by the Seni on Parramat. In some ways, this means a combination fantasy/science fiction novel but it moves back to sf by the end, even tying into a wider chronology through a sort of contact with a race we've read quite a bit about in rather intriguing fashion.

What's different to what we're used to from Foster is the take on xenology. Here, it's the focus of the novel, with humans trying to understand Seni, if not particularly vice versa. However, there's a lot less of the xenobiology that Foster has so much fun with. We do meet some native creatures here and there that do nothing but flavour the world of Senisran with diversity, but there aren't too many and none of them seem to gain much of a focus when the spotlight turns onto them. It's the Seni and their stones.

As I mentioned, I liked this but I wanted more from it. It's enjoyable as a ride, which it sometimes becomes quite literally. The latest new planet is a worthy one and the Seni are fascinating. However, the story arcs of our lead characters, Pulickel Tomochelor and Fawn Seaforth, aren't that satisfactory and there's precious little interaction with the AAnn, nothing like what we got in Bloodhype. What does happen is quite fun but I wanted more from what seemed like a crucial dynamic and ended up almost a distraction.

What's more, it opens a lot of possibilities but then closes them down again and, almost a quarter of a century on, I don't believe any of them have been opened up again. Perhaps that's very deliberate on Foster's part and I get a little of the reasoning there but, like Tomochelor here, I'm inquisitive and want to know more. Maybe one day Foster will revisit Senisran to pursue that but, for now, I think this standalone novel does what it does and allows us to imagine the rest.

Next up, we go back to the very beginning of the Humanx Commonwealth for the Founding trilogy, starting with 1999's Phylogenesis. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more title in the Humanx Commonwealth series click here
For more titles by Alan Dean Foster click here

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