Book Review: The Legacy of Heorot

The Legacy of Heorot (1987) – by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Heorot (1 of 4)

408 pages

Publisher store pageAmazonKobo

Setting the Scene

Consider the following assumptions…

  • In the near future, the National Geographic Society raised enough money to pay for a slower-than-light starship, sending several hundred of Earth’s brightest people to Avalon, an Earth-like planet in the Tau Ceti system.
  • Because of the long time it would take to get there, the settlers would be placed in state of deep freeze, a technology that wasn’t entirely worked out yet, with the result of killing a small percentage of the settlers and causing brain damage of varying severity to another significant portion.
  • Because of the expense and the distance, there would be only one ship headed to Tau Ceti, with no immediate re-supply, so whatever the settlers took with them would be the only supplies they’d have in their lifetimes.
  • Once there, parts of the starship would need to be used to construct a colony on the planet’s surface, so although the ship can still serve as a warehouse and temporary living quarters for a handful, it could not take them back to Earth or go anywhere else.

Given all this, what would happen to this colony if, one night, months after getting settled, one of their dogs go missing? And what if, soon after, some of their chickens are killed? And what if, the colonists discover that whatever is killing their livestock is more than capable of killing them?


It’s apparent that the authors of this tale wanted to confine the people of the colony to the surface of the planet, and particularly the island they settled on. Otherwise the smart option would have been to either escape back up to orbit to buy themselves some time or even to leave the system altogether. However, the residents of Avalon have with them plenty of tools to combat this threat. They have helicopter-like vehicles called Skeeters, they have defensive and offensive weapons, and all the advanced technology they could cram on their starship.

Minor spoilers ahead….

As you can see on the cover, the creatures targeting them look like a gigantic komodo dragons, and as you learn more about it you, along with the characters in the book, experience an increasing sense of dread as they discover what this creature – this monster come to life – is capable of. They know just enough about it to be afraid, so this first section of the book feels like a horror novel, giving you just a tiny bit of the picture, leaving your (and the characters’) imagination to do its worst in filling in the rest.

But the gaps in knowledge about the grendels (yes, it’s a Beowulf reference), which the colonists name the strange beasts, are filled in, through the evidence they collect, by their individual expertise, and through trial and error. Once those unknowns become knowns, they can at least began to imagine possible solutions to the problem. Progress is not linear, though, as there are several instances of the colonists thinking they have defeated the grendels, only to realize that they may have unintentionally made the threat worse.

One of the pleasures of reading a story with some sort of mystery is trying to guess at the answer or solution along with the characters, as you are given information right along with them. Especially when you are completely surprised by the answer while knowing the clues were there in plain sight. To be more specific, the mystery in this book is ecological, and the people of Avalon need to figure out not only about the grendels themselves (how they function, their life cycle, where they live, but how they fit into the food chain on the island.

The grendels aren’t the only thing the colonists of Avalon are working through; they also have to deal with each other. As with any large group of people, conflict arises within their ranks, and are inflamed further by the external threat. And unlike many other groups of people, this group is essentially cut off from the rest of human civilization, so there are some unique problems that come up.

There’s a lot in this book I liked: the action sequences were clearly written, the ideas presented were fascinating, and the ecological mystery was deftly introduced and solved. The technology used in the story is advanced beyond our current capabilities, but are plausible in the near future. Some characters were more fully developed than others, but it was enough to keep me invested in the few main protagonists.

Prose Examples

Action scene from Chapter 2 (Sheena is a dog):

One moment it was there, and Sheena’s teeth were snapping at its neck. Her teeth closed on nothing. It receded like a cloud-shadow beneath the moon, and returned as fast, and now it was on Sheena’s back. Its cold, broad feet clamped around her middle with sudden, terrifying strength. Sheena’s ribs sagged inward. She snarled her agony and rolled to mash the thing from her back.

Beginning of Chapter 3, a description of the starship Geographic:

Geographic was one of the largest mobile objects ever created by human engineering. Seen from below as the shuttle rose to meet her, the ship looked like a gigantic flashlight with a silver doorknob attached to the end. The aft end was a ring of laser fusion reactors, a flaring section twice the diameter of the trunk. The trunk, over a hundred and fifty meters in length, was the cylinder that housed the life-support systems and cryogenic suspension facilities. Minerva Two was approaching the fore end: the laboratories and the crew quarters, where Cadmann had spent five waking years of his life. The dock was a conical cagework at the end of a protruding arm, barely visible even this close.

Book/Series Information

The Legacy of Heorot was the first of four books (three novels and novella) written in this series:

  1. The Legacy of Heorot (1987) – Simon and Schuster, re-released by Baen in paperback in 2020
  2. Beowulf’s Children (1995) – Tor, re-released by Baen in paperback in 2020
  3. The Secret of Black Ship Island (2012) – novella (e-book/audiobook only)
  4. Starborn and Godsons (2020) – Baen

The series is finished, as Jerry Pournelle passed away towards the end of the writing of Starborn and Godsons. As of the writing of this post (Late April 2020), the e-book versions of the three novels are discounted at the publisher’s website ($4.49 for the first two, $7.50 for the latest one).

Other Works by the Authors

Larry Niven – Fantastic FictionISFDB

Jerry Pournelle – Fantastic FictionISFDB

Steven Barnes – Fantastic FictionISFDB

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