Review: 'Fire Season', by David Weber and Jane Lindskold
Riverdale, NY, Baen Books, October 2012
Hardcover $18.99 (287 pages)
Weber gets a co-author in this second of Baen Books’ series of Star Kingdom books for Young Adults, and the sequel to Weber’s A Beautiful Friendship, reviewed here last October. This new series is a prequel to Weber’s immensely popular Honor Harrington series of military science-fiction. This new series is set about 350 years earlier, when the planet Sphinx is just being settled by humans. In A Beautiful Friendship, Honor’s ancestor Stephanie Harrington, then an 11-year-old precocious tomboy, discovers Sphinx’s six-legged empathetic treecats, and bonds with the one she names Lionheart, but whose own name is Climbs Quickly.
The (almost) equal time given to the treecats, who are background characters in the Honor Harrington novels, is what makes this series anthropomorphic.
Despite their name, treecats were not all that feline. For one, no Terran cat had ever possessed six limbs or a fully prehensile tail. Their build was longer and – beneath their fluffy coats – leaner. They were also larger, averaging sixty to seventy centimeters through the body, with their tails doubling the length. And, of course, no Terran cat had three-fingered hands with fully opposable thumbs.
However, quite like Terran cats, male treecats, like Lionheart, were tabby-gray above, cream below. Their gray tails were ornamented with a varying number of darker bands. There were other similarities as well: slitted pupils to the eyes (these almost always green), retractable claws (although these were far sharper than those possessed by any Terran cat), pointed ears, and long whiskers. Moreover, when tense, treecats bristled out their fur much as a Terran cat did. As Karl piloted them closer to the fire, Stephanie could feel from the tickling along her neck that Lionheart was distinctly puffed. (pgs. 15-16)
Climbs Quickly’s names for Stephanie and Karl are Death Fang’s Bane and Shadowed Sunlight. The treecats can also, which the humans do not know, talk among themselves telepathically.
In this second novel, Fire Season, cover also by Daniel Dos Santos, Stephanie is almost 14. She has acquired an older big-brother/boyfriend, Karl Zivokin, largely because he is practically the only Terran besides Stephanie who accepts Lionheart/Climbs Quickly as an equal individual instead of as a cute pet. As the only two probationary rangers in the Sphinxian Forestry Service, they are often assigned to work together, which suits them just fine.
Fire Season on Sphinx is very late summer, when the vast Forest grows increasingly dry and fires are a particular danger. Fire is part of nature’s ecological balance, necessary to thin underbrush and to help some plants to germinate. Yet this is cold comfort to the arboreal treecats, who are lucky when they lose only their homes and not clan members.
Fire Season begins when Stephanie, Karl, and Climbs Quickly are in an aircar giving Stephanie an unofficial piloting lesson. They see a fire burning out of control on private land, and arrive just in time to save two treecats.
<Are you badly burned?> Climbs Quickly asked Left-Striped.
<My hand-feet and true-feet are tender,> the other admitted, <and I have some blisters where sparks or flying embers burned through my fur. Nothing at all serious. I am more worried about my brother. He is very sluggish.>
<We are going to one who can help him,> Climbs Quickly said reassuringly. His mind voice filled with images of Healer, the father of Death Fang’s Bane. <This one specializes in helping those who have been wounded – and not only those of his own type. I have seen him help his daughter or mate, but usually he gives his skills to other bloods. He is the one who saved my life after a death fang tore me into little more than bloodied scraps of fur.> (p. 31)
It is determined that the fire was the result of human negligence. Before this can be investigated further, an officially-invited off-planet team of xeno-anthropologists arrives on Sphinx to study the treecats.
The team is headed by Dr. Bradford Whittaker, who has brought his teenage son Anders as a lab assistant. Dr. Whittaker is an egotist who can’t believe that rules apply to him, too. When the Sphinxian Forestry Service establishes guidelines to ensure that the treecats are studied discretely and not as intrusively as Dr. Whittaker would like, he orders his son to romance Stephanie Harrington to get her to “tell all” about the treecats. Anders, who has begun to develop genuine feelings for Stephanie, feels both embarrassed and insulted.
The main focuses (foci?) of the novel are the human adolescents of the town of Twin Forks on Sphinx and their developing relationships, and Dr. Whittaker’s schemes to get closer to the treecats, which are well-told. What Furry fans will be interested in is the treecats’ parallel story. Despite Climbs Quickly’s vouching for them – for most of them, because they have run into murderous human villains in previous adventures (A Beautiful Friendship; the story “The Stray” in the anthology Worlds of Honor) -- many treecats remain skeptical of getting any closer to the humans than they have to. They consider Climbs Quickly to be overly trusting because of his personal emotional bond with Stephanie Harrington. Ironically, Dr. Whittaker distrusts Climbs Quickly and the few other treecats that have been treated by Stephanie’s veterinarian father for the same reason: they have become “tainted” by their contact with humans. He insists on studying only wild treecats who have not associated with humans.
As the reader should suspect, it all builds to a climax in which a massive forest fire threatens both a clan of treecats and Dr. Whittaker’s team of xeno-anthropologists which he has taken where they are not supposed to go, and the adolescents of Twin Forks with Climbs Quickly come to the rescue. While the teenagers work to retard the fire while they rescue the scientists, Climbs Quickly must persuade the treecats of the Damp Ground Clan to accept the human help:
<Go away,> said a big male who had introduced himself as Nose Biter, including with the name a short but very vivid image of how he had earned the title.
Climbs Quickly had no doubt that out there was one snow hunter who – no matter that it had been quite young at the time – would never ever go near one of the People again, much less make the mistake of thinking one might serve nicely as the main course for lunch.
However admirable as Nose Biter’s ferocity was in defense of self and kin, it was misdirected and just plain stupid now.
<We are here to help,> Climbs Quickly said. <Is this not the Damp Ground Clan?>
<We are,> growled Nose Biter.
<Then,> Climbs Quickly said, not hiding his confusion, <Why are you so hostile? Surely Right-Striped and Left-Striped told how my two-leg and her friend saved them from the burning green-needle tree. Where are they? Have they been sent away like the younglings I met – Springer, Little Witness, and their litter mates?>
<They have not,> came the reply, underscored with a hiss and a snarl. <Although they should have been. No. The twins have been sent forth to scout the route back to our former nesting place, checking if the way is open. They were eager to redeem themselves for their earlier foolishness.> (pgs. 232-233)
As is typical with Young Adult novels, the adolescents have to struggle to save the hidebound adults from themselves, in both humans and treecats. Fire Season ends with the treecats still not having revealed their true intelligence to the humans – they could not, since they still have not by Honor Harrington’s time -- but having revealed enough of it that nobody can dismiss them as dumb animals anymore. It helps to have read A Beautiful Friendship first, but Fire Season stands nicely on its own and is a satisfying adventure for Furry readers.