_The Howling Stones_ by Alan Dean Foster is a novel set in his Humanx Commonwealth universe, the setting of such earlier works as _The Icerigger Trilogy_ and _Cachalot_ and more recent efforts such as _Drowning World_. An enjoyable novel and a fast read it is similar to other books in the series, depicting exploration and adventure on alien worlds within the Commonwealth, worlds generally with distinct endemic sentient alien species.
The world of this novel is known as Senisran, a largely ocean planet, devoid of any substantial continental landmass but instead spotted with thousands of islands, many of them in archipelagoes. Most of the islands are fairly small, the largest being about half the size of Madagascar. The climate over most of the globe is hot and humid, the islands being covered in tropical vegetation (with a fair amount of venomous fauna).
The native race is known as the seni and are bipedal humanoids, tending to be a bit shorter than adult humans, with smooth skin, pointed ears, drawn faces, relatively small mouths, and powerful hind legs easily capable of allowing their owners to hop great distances and over large obstacles. On the cover of the book one is depicted, the illustration pretty much spot-on for what is described in the text.
In the Humanx Commonwealth novels, there are two competing interstellar civilizations, rivals not unlike the two superpowers during the Cold War, one being the human-thranx (the thranx being an insectoid race, not seen in this novel and indeed most of the Commonwealth books), the other the AAnn Empire (this being a civilization of bipedal endothermic reptiles, something not unlike what dinosaurs might have evolved into according to some). Both the Commonwealth and the Empire have been in competition for control of Senisran, not through force of arms, but through diplomacy, trying to gain mineral and other rights to many of the various islands on the planet. Complicating their efforts tremendously is the fact that not only is there nothing approaching a world or even a regional government on Senisran, there are countless tribes, clans, and alliances, each with a unique governmental system, morality, mythology, religion, and/or social system. Making contact and trade arrangements with the stone age seni has been a time consuming and difficult process but has nonetheless yielded many successes.
Until now that is. One particular island group, Parramat, has resisted all efforts by either the Empire or the Commonwealth. Eager for the rare earth mineral wealth of the archipelago, both powers have failed in efforts to get the Parramati to sign a mining treaty. Though physically no different in appearance from the other tribes and clans of the world, the Parramati are unique in having politely but stubbornly refused the gifts of both the Commonwealth and the Empire, disdaining all but the most basic of gifts, stating simply that it violates their kusum, their custom, to accept anything approaching advanced technology. They believe that they will be much better off following their centuries long tradition, that while they would accept humans and the AAnn as visitors and friends, they could not tolerate any large scale changes of their environment or society.
In addition, the Paramati seem to have a unique governmental structure; they are almost totally democratic. There are big persons and little persons in the system, big persons having more of a say in things than a little person, though many little persons can outweigh individual big persons. There is not even a clan chief or tribal leader anyone can negotiate with; in essence, almost each and every adult on the island would have to agree to a treaty before it could take effect.
Enter Pulickel Tomochelor (Foster seems fond of tongue-twisting futuristic names for some of his main characters), a rather smug but accomplished xenologist ordered to journey to the island, aid the one human already stationed there, and secure a mining treaty. Supremely confident in his abilities, Pulickel believed that he could in a few months time come to understand the Parramati and get them to agree to mining.
Of course, things do not go that easily. The one Commonwealth representative in the archipelago, the imposing and beautiful Fawn Seaforth, is quite a bit different in personality from Pulickel, and they don't see eye to eye at first, Fawn believing Pulickel humorless, uptight, by-the-book, and a bit smug while Pulickel in turn feeling that Fawn has gone native to some extent, has let standards slide while stationed alone in the tropical near-paradise, not properly attending to her duties, and too fun-loving. Further complicating their mission is the rival AAnn outpost on the opposite side of the archipelago, the aliens scheming how to win the islands to their side and possibly forcibly remove the competition.
The title of the book hints at a further complication; the natives seem to possess some sort of magic, various stones that are said to aid in fishing, farming, healing, weather-forecasting and what not. By themselves, the stones appear as green glassy volcanic rock, inert and unremarkable, but somehow when combined with other stones these rocks are rumored to be able to do very powerful feats. Is this true? If so, perhaps this explains the natives' unique resistance to the considerable charms offered by Empire and Commonwealth civilization and technology. And if true, is it magic, or something else?
The exact nature of the stone is revealed (to a large extent) and their ultimate implications were extremely interesting. The ending of the book I found quite surprising and wonder if Foster ever planned to follow up on it, though strictly speaking no sequel is really necessary. All in all a good solid effort and another nice installment in the Humanx Commonwealth series.