Review: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi
I love the cover art by John Harris, even though I must admit that it was the Hugo Nomination that bumped Zoe’s Tale to the top of my reading list. I’ve followed John Scalzi’s blog for a while and am a proud owner of copy number 263 of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. However, I’d not actually read one of his novels until I picked up Zoe’s Tale. Reading Scalzi’s Thoughts on Zoe’s Tale assured me that it would work as a stand alone read, and I’d have to agree.
When writing a science fiction story, one of the first questions an author has to ask is whether or not there will be extraterrestrial life. Many great galaxy spanning epic series have dealt with a universe in which all life in the galaxy could be traced back to earth. Asimov’s Foundation, Robot and Galactic Empire novels come to mind. Even when there are aliens, often we’ll encounter only a handful of races in an entire series. In this relatively short novel, we interact directly with a 1/2 dozen races and more are referred to by name. Still more (over 400) are implied. The feeling I get is that the majority of these races are at war with each other over the galaxy’s finite resources. (heh, SF really isn’t about the future, is it?) Into this is thrust a teenage girl, with a penchant for peacemaking.
Zoe Boutin Perry was the soul survivor of a space station caught in the middle of a battle between 2 alien races. (Bear with me, I’ve not read any of the other Old Man’s War novels) By a twisted chain of events, she becomes central to a treaty between humanity and a genetically engineered race called the Obin. Remarkable and privileged in many ways, Zoe is mostly a typical teenage girl. She likes music, she’s sarcastic, she blushes when her boyfriend writes her poetry, and she obviously keeps a good journal, if her voice as narrator is any indication. The feature that sets her apart, is that she REALLY doesn’t like to see people fight. Early in the story, with the help of her new best friend, Gretchen, she stops what could have been a rather large brawl between boys from 2 different colonies. As the the threats in the books grow in scale, her negotiation skills get honed even further. Her arc from carefree child to manipulator of one of the most ancient races in the galaxy is an amazingly smooth progression.
The pace of the story felt very much like I was reading the entries in a journal, often with explicit indicators of how much time had passed in the white space between sections of text. Early on the power of teenage gossip gave a VERY good tool to let the narrator describe events that she hadn’t directly witnessed. Used sparingly this helped bridge important segments of the story. Other than the space ships and the aliens and the associated explosions, I’d have to say that my favorite word in Zoe’s Tale was “unhugged.” Scalzi uses it as a tool to indicate when a hug actually ends in a long section of dialog. There’s a lot of intense situations that result in needed hugs and I was delighted by this small detail. I’m impressed with the work Scalzi put into this novel. It’s a good read, with a good message, and a spectacular introduction to not just Scalzi, but science fiction.