Overcomplicated but innovative and pleasingly ambitious outing for the author of the competently wrought but insipid The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky (1987). In the 29th century, monks representing the Christian worlds (there are also Islamic worlds, Communist worlds, and so forth) have arrived on planet Randall with the twin objectives of founding a colony and converting the natives. Randall, with its notably thick atmosphere and highly developed biosphere, boasts three intelligent alien races: the cat-like winged griffins, the four-armed ape-like Randallans, and the handsnakes. At first all goes well, but then, inexplicably, war breaks out. The natives attack in units of three (griffin plus Randallan plus handsnake), and whenever one member is killed, the others immediately commit suicide. The problem for xenologist Brother Hauskyld Gomez and Clio Yeremenko (a refugee from the Communist worlds, and the only woman on the planet) is thus to contact some natives outside the war zone and, hopefully, learn the cultural and psychological reasons for the natives' change of heart. Still in the future: a bloody and devastating Randallan civil war (the natives' close-knit trio system breaks down, pitting the technological-whiz Randallans against the outclassed traditionalists), and political struggles on still another alien planet for Randall's first native Bishop, the griffin Kuf. The backdrop is certainly overstuffed and underdone, but Barnes develops his ecological/cultural puzzles with flair and forethought. All in all, a heartening improvement.