Published by Tor
John Scalzi makes for an interesting teenaged girl, in his return (after the briefest of respites) to his Old Man’s War universe with Zoë’s Tale. Ostensibly, this novel retells the events of The Last Colony from the point-of-view of Zoë Boutin Perry, John Perry and Jane Sagan’s adopted daughter. Scalzi has said the book is accessible for teen readers. Note that "accessible for teen readers" is not precisely the same thing as "writing a Young Adult novel", which makes sense considering the first person POV of the novel is a sixteen year old girl, of a happily married couple. Scalzi has also proclaimed this novel as a love letter to his daughter, which makes an already endearing character (Zoe) more endearing. Conversely, a sense of Mary Sue/Gary Stu has the possibility to inevitably encroach on the narrative, as readers of John’s great blog the Whatever may find parallels between Zoe/John/Jane and John’s family.
The nutshell of the story is that the colony led by the Perry’s has become lost, that is where they thought they were going doesn’t exactly turn out to be where they arrive. A lot of the external conflict between the Colonial Defense Force (John Perry’s superiors who send him to Roanoke) and the Conclave (an alien organization who wishes to put the kibosh on human-led expansion) was dealt with in The Last Colony, but it rears its head again very largely in the final act of Zoe’s Tale. What the majority of this novel concerns itself with is (obviously) Zoe herself, her friends, and her role as a messiah figure for the alien Obin. It is this last part that considerably increases the angst of the novel, as if adjusting to continual new planets, being a teenager and falling in love aren’t angsty enough. If nothing else, Scalzi imbues the novel with a great deal of angst.
The Obin are strange beings, described as many appendaged creatures slightly larger than humans that are rather frighteneng to behold. In the back-story of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, Zoe’s paternal father Charles essentially uplifted the Obin with consciousness. As a result, Zoe has two Obin bodyguards which are treated as a strange combination of pets, older siblings, and crazed cousins – Hickory and Dickory. Because of their physical appearance, many people on both Huckleberry (the planet the Perry’s are initially on when the novel begins) and Roanoke, find them frightening. Throughout the novel, Zoe makes attempts to humanize them and indoctrinate them in human culture. This is a double ended task though, since Hickory and Dickory record all of Zoe’s actions for Obin culture because of her messiah-like role in their society.
Character has consistently been a strength of Scalzi’s writing, he has an ear for dialogue and the scenes just flow very smoothly into one another. Although the scenes involving Zoe, Jane, and John (or any combination thereof) are crafted very well, Zoe does her best with her friends and the Obin. Particularly when Zoe and her best friend Gretchen get into involved conversations, the story just flies by and Scalzi reveals just how frustrated Zoe is about her position as saviour and daughter of the head of the colony. When she is alone with the Obin, you can see the hints of a greater person to come as she (sometimes) patiently informs the Obin of why they are off-putting.
The easiest criticism to level at Zoe’s Tale is that Scalzi's characters of Jane, Zoe, and John are surrogates of his family thrust into space and galactic colonization. While not particularly a fair criticism, one always has to keep in mind that writers often write what they know best. If John Scalzi wasn’t such a clever, entertaining writer and charming person on the intarwebs, I doubt the characters he crafted and continued to develop in this novel would be as enjoyable to read. What this boils down to, regardless of how much Zoe’s family resembles the Scalzi family, is that these characters are genuine; especially Zoe. She is honest, unperfect, and wrought in an incredibly endearing fashion. Although he states, in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the novel, how difficult it was to pen a novel which is a retelling or parallel of an earlier novel, the final product comes across as an effortless and entertaining tale. Scalzi’s knack for genuine characters, stress-induced situations, straightforward prose, and terrific storytelling skills are on great display here. Zoe’s Tale is another winner from John Scalzi, whether you’ve been following the Old Man’s War Universe, are being introduced to them for the first time here, and regardless of your age.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford
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