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Hilari Bell Biography (1958-) - Sidelights

review book flame profit

Hilari Bell has written several science fiction and fantasy novels for adults and children. She is "a master at crafting distinctive societies and characters," Sally Estes wrote in Booklist. Bell's books are also notable for their absence of clear heroes and villains; her characters and societies are drawn with distinct shades of gray and are often motivated by political considerations rather than honor or duty.

Bell's first novel for children, Songs of Power, is a combination of the science fiction and fantasy genres. The story is set in a technologically advanced future, but it is the main character's ability to do magic that drives the plot. Imina was taught some spiritual talents by her great-grandmother, an Inuit shaman, but the older woman passed away when Imina was still a child. Now the girl lives with her parents in a research station at the bottom of the ocean. Terrorists released a virus that is rapidly destroying all land-based plants, so "technocrats" are working on developing a way to grow food in the oceans. However, the research station is plagued by technical problems, which the technocrats blame on sabotage by the terrorists but Imina recognizes as magical. Eventually, with the help of a skeptical classmate, she discovers that whales are using their magic to try to prevent humans from encroaching on their territory. "Bell's depiction of life in the habitat and her feisty main character, Imina, make for a suspenseful read," a reviewer commented in Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal contributor John Peters called the book "a whale of a debut."

Bell's next two books, A Matter of Profit and The Goblin Wood, both offer an inclusive message about treating other sentient species as equals and being open to receiving their wisdom. In the first book, Ahvren is a young warrior sickened by the battles he has seen. To serve the emperor in other ways, Ahvren is tasked with getting to the bottom of an alleged plot on the emperor's life. To do this, Ahvren must understand the way of thinking of the T'Chin Confederation, whose forty planets recently surrendered without firing a shot when Ahvren's Vivitare race came to conquer them. A bibliogoth, a member of the T'Chin who is an exceptionally wise scholar and happens to look something like an ant, helps Ahvren understand why the T'Chin surrendered: their philosophy is always to maximize profit, and it was more profitable to come into the Vivitare empire than to resist it. "Both the bibliogoth's wise mentorship and Ahvren's gradual and believable conversion to the T'Chin way of thinking are distinctively and engagingly handled," Anita L. Burkam wrote in Horn Book. School Library Journal contributor Mara Alpert praised the book as "well-written, thought-provoking, and exciting" and commented, "It's got cool weapons and weird aliens, but it's also got some meat to it." Noting the author's ability to create believable characters and alien cultures, Booklist's Estes found A Matter of Profit "one of the best youth sf tales to come along in many years."

In The Goblin Wood, Bell "illuminates the sometimes spider-thin lines that prevent cultures from living together in peace," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Makenna, the heroine of the tale, learns to respect goblins when she and they are both caught up in a decision to ban certain forms of magic. Makenna's mother, a hedgewitch, is executed, and Makenna flees into the woods. There, she allies herself with the goblins, whom the Hierarch is also trying to wipe out. For five years, they resist the Hierarchy together, until a knight named Tobin is sent to eliminate Makenna's threat. But instead of capturing or killing Makenna, Tobin falls in love with her, and the two work together to try to make the world safe for both humans and goblins. Several reviewers praised Bell for giving the Hierarch realistic, sympathetic reasons for cracking down on magic so harshly: he is only trying to stop an invasion of his realms. "The addition of political motivations to a genre mostly dominated by a good/evil dichotomy is a pleasing surprise," Anita L. Burkham commented in Horn Book, while School Library Journal contributor Sharon Grover noted that Bell's exploration of "the gray areas … makes for some interesting and thought-provoking reading."

Bell launched a trilogy, "The Book of Sorahb," in 2003. The "sweeping fantasy … draws its underpinnings from ancient Persian poetry … and the relentless march of the Roman army," Sharon Grover explained in a School Library Journal review of the first book in the series, Flame. The Persian side of the conflict is represented Bell creates a tale of fantasy and magic when twelve-year-old Makenna flees into the woods after tragedy occurs and encounters a world of goblins. (Cover art by Eric Bowman.) After centuries of peace, the land of Farsala is being threatened by a ferocious new enemy and three young people are dedicated to protecting their homeland in Bell's first volume of "The Book of Sorahb" trilogy. (Cover art by Grey Newbold.) by the country of Farsala, which is fighting off an invasion by the Hrum. The tale is told through the interlocking stories of three young Farsalans: Soraya, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the Farsalan army commander; Jiann, the illegitimate, half-peasant son of the same commander; and Kavi, a traveling peddler who is being blackmailed into spying for both sides. The trilogy takes its name from the legend of Sorahb, a mythical warrior who will supposedly return to save the Farsalan people; his legend is also woven into the tale, in offset italic chapters. As in Bell's earlier books, "the cast is fully formed: the bad guys aren't entirely bad, the good guys not entirely good," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Although the Hrum are bent on world domination, they treat their conquered subjects as citizens with full rights, while Farsala maintains a sharp distinction between the noble deghans and the oppressed peasants. A Kirkus Reviews contributor praised Bell's treatment of these issues of class and culture, commenting that they "are interwoven so well with adventure and archetypal resonance that depth arrives unannounced." Booklist's Sally Estes also praised the book, concluding that young adults "will eagerly await the promised future installments."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, February, 2001, Tom Easton, review of Navohar, p. 133.

Booklist, August, 2001, Sally Estes, review of A Matter of Profit, p. 2116; June 1, 2003, Sally Estes, review of The Goblin Wood, p. 1758; September 1, 2003, Sally Estes, review of Flame, p. 122.

Denver Post (Denver, CO), June 25, 2000, Fred Cleaver, review of Navohar and Songs of Power, p. G-02.

Horn Book, January-February, 2002, Anita L. Burkam, review of A Matter of Profit, pp. 76-77; May-June, 2003, Anita L. Burkam, review of The Goblin Wood, p. 339; September-October, 2003, Anita L. Burkham, review of Flame, p. 607.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2003, review of Flame, p. 1171.

Kliatt, May, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of A Matter of Profit, p. 23; September, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of Flame, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly, June 12, 2000, review of Songs of Power, p. 74; March 24, 2003, review of The Goblin Wood, p. 76; October 27, 2003, review of Flame, p. 70.

School Library Journal, May, 2000, John Peters, review of Songs of Power, p. 166; October, 2001, Mara Alpert, review of A Matter of Profit, p. 148; July, 2003, Sharon Grover, review of The Goblin Wood, p. 123; November, 2003, Sharon Grover, review of Flame, p. 134.

ONLINE

Hilari Bell Web site, http://www.sfwa.org/members/bell/ (January 11, 2004).*

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