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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Eclipse Online #2, November 2012

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Eclipse Online #2, November 2012

“Holmes Sherlock, A Hwarhath Mystery” by Eleanor Arnason

“Firebugs” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Reviewed by Louis West

Eleanor Arnason’s “Holmes Sherlock, A Hwarhath Mystery” tells of a heterophobic alien species struggling to understand their enemies, the humans, through translation of their literature. The author has been writing SF/F since 1972 and has won various awards as well as received numerous award nominations. Her Hwarhath short-story series has tantalized readers since her first one in 1993. As part of that series, this story would nicely fill in pieces of the overall Hwarhath world and culture. However, as a stand-alone story, it didn’t work for me. Although the ideas are intriguing, I found the story lacking tension and reading more like a Nordic travelogue exploring local customs and geography.

“There was a woman…” The beginning confused me with its use of the term “woman,” which technically means female human. It took several paragraphs before I sorted out that Kla was Hwarhath, not human, and many pages before I even knew what she looked like. Of course, for an experienced Hwarhath story reader, these would have been non-issues.

The Hwarhath series portrays a society rigidly split, with the war-like males kept away to ensure the safety of the females. Bits of this are hinted at in this story. Yet, when the protagonist actually encounters two male guards, they come across as essentially powerless.

The real story didn’t begin for me until almost half-way through, when a girl goes missing from a lake and is feared dead. Yet, even as a murder mystery, the plot seemed lackluster in its unfolding.

However, I did enjoy the ending. I had a flash image of Nero Wolfe in his study, as Kla’s grandmother sat in her chair solving the mystery of what to do with the girl, once all the clues had been gathered. I also liked the revelation about how rigid Hwarhath society had become. But nothing challenged it or made Kla doubt her people’s traditions.

“Firebugs,” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, is a potentially interesting story about Jixa, a member of the Esta pod of six. This pod is experimental and has yet to define its purpose. Jixa’s problem is that she likes to burn things, and her desire infects the rest of her pod, a conundrum that could lead to their elimination. To save her pod, Jixa decides that she must sacrifice herself. But the options turn out to be far less draconian than she’d ever imagined.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman has been writing SF/F since 1975 and has won or been nominated for numerous awards. This story, unfortunately, disappointed me, not because its world wasn’t intriguing, but because I felt the pace and the main character were underdeveloped. The pace of the story rarely changed, although it did venture at times into the flighty, exactly what I would expect of a young girl struggling to understand and define herself. However, I never felt that Jixa’s life was actually in danger, in spite of her fears that she would have to be either reconditioned or composted to save her pod. It disappointed me that Jixa’s need to burn things wasn’t transformed into a skill of use to her society. Instead, it faded away, as she headed off to a life as a singleton. Likewise, the Esta talent of being able to undertalk, or mind-talk between themselves, could have been exploited to show how valuable the Esta pod truly was.

Louis West critiques for Critters.org plus Spacecrafts and does volunteer work for the New England ReaderCon conference. His experience includes work in biophysics, medical genetics and international finance, with strong interests in astronomy and sub-atomic physics. He enjoys hard SF, urban fantasy plus select supernatural, and writes in a bio-punk style, focusing on the personal and social impacts of new technologies.