At the risk of greatly simplifying my reading process, it’s possible to categorize books into two categories: page turners and slow burners. Page turners are incredibly easy and entertaining reads, while slow burners require a little more effort to digest (and usually take longer to read). Both types have their plusses and minuses, and naturally, most books fall somewhere between the two types, with certain rare and extreme exceptions. For instance, Gravity’s Rainbow is a typical slow burner – packed densely with fascinating ideas and esoteric concepts and beautifully written, it is also a very slow read that requires full attention (i.e. not something you’d want to read at the beach or on a plane). On the other hand, the books of John Scalzi would be best characterized as page turners.
Since discovering Scalzi a few years ago, I’ve quickly devoured most of his books. The first and most notable is Old Man’s War, an entertaining military SF book with a twist: the soldiers in this novel begin their service at 75 years old. Scalzi hits all the military SF tropes while retaining an entertaining and page turning feel. Not terribly original, but it featured likeable characters and a fun overall arc. He followed that up with a sequel, The Ghost Brigades, which follows a different branch of the military (the special forces). Once again, it was an entertaining page turner, though in my opinion, it did not reach the heights of Old Man’s War mostly because of the galactic-sized plot hole that the story hinges on. His next novel, The Android’s Dream (which, contrary to its title, doesn’t feature much in the way of androids or dreams), is independent of what has now become the Old Man’s War Universe, and is probably my second favorite of Scalzi’s novels. Scalzi then returned to the OMW Universe and wrote The Last Colony. Where the first two novels in the series focused on the military aspects of the universe, this novel focuses on the colonies. The heroes from the first two books, John Perry and Jane Sagan, head up an expedition to colonize a new planet, much to the chagrin of a collective of alien races. Once again, I breezed through the book in no time and thoroughly enjoyed it, despite a few seemingly loose ends or abrupt plot maneuvers.
Which brings us to Scalzi’s latest novel, Zoe’s Tale. The story is set in parallel with The Last Colony and depicts mostly the same events, but from the perspective of Zoe Boutin Perry, the 16 year old adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan (the heroes of the first two novels). This is actually a tricky proposition, for a number of reasons. First, while retelling the same story from a different perspective has been done before (Scalzi himself mentions the two most obvious examples in his acknowledgements: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow (Which retells Ender’s Game from the perspective of Bean) and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which takes minor characters from Hamlet and makes them the focus)), it is by no means a simple matter to portray the same events in a new and exciting light. Second, the character of Zoe, a teenage girl with rough childhood, presents something of a challenge because the book is written in first person and I’m pretty sure John Scalzi is not a teenage girl (he is, in fact, a 38 year old man). If he couldn’t manage to find Zoe’s voice, the book simply couldn’t have worked.
Overall, I think he managed to clear both hurdles, but not by a ton. Like his other novels, I blew through this book in just a few days, and it was indeed quite entertaining. However, there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me. As I mentioned before, the story takes place in parallel with the events of The Last Colony, and for a good portion of this book, the concept doesn’t really play that well. As a teenage girl, Zoe doesn’t really have much to do during a good portion of the story. Events are happening around her, but she’s not really driving or even responding much to them. Much time is spent building relationships with a small group of friends, while her parents are dealing with bigger and more exciting problems. Luckily, the loose ends in Colony that I mentioned above give Scalzi what he needs to empower Zoe, and the last third or so of the novel really kicks into gear. In particular, we get a little more on the indiginous life form on the colony’s planet (which are described as similar to werewolves). In Colony, the situation with the werewolves escalates to nowhere. Some things happen, and then that subplot is basically dropped in favor of another, more dangerous threat. To be honest, I still don’t think Scalzi has weaved the werewolves subplot into the story that well, but Zoe’s encounter with them does add some more perspective, and actually plays more of a part in this novel than it does in Colony. The other major event that is only briefly mentioned in Colony is Zoe’s diplomatic mission to the Conclave (which was essentially a deus ex machina maneuver on Scalzi’s part). This represents the climax of Zoe’s story and is handled well.
As for Zoe’s voice, I think Scalzi certainly does well enough. Speaking as someone who has never been a teenage girl myself, I can’t say this with authority, but I didn’t have many problems with the character. I think Scalzi did go a bit overboard with the themes of friendship and love, which are repeated over and over as the story progresses, but it works reasonably well within the story. After several books, it’s also worth noting that Scalzi’s main characters all seem to engage in witty, rapid-fire dialogue, but I’m not really complaining about that yet. It’s part of what turns the pages, after all.
In the end, I don’t think this is Scalzi’s best work, though maybe teenage girls will get more of a kick out of it than I did (and I think it could work as a standalone novel as well, which would might make it even better). On the other hand, I devoured this novel just as quickly as the others, and enjoyed it almost as much. While I very much enjoy these characters and the OMW Universe in general, I do hope the Scalzi moves on to something else, at least for a novel or two. He has a done a good job in mining his universe for interesting stories, and each novel has a very distinct feel (the first two give different flavors of military service, while the next two give different perspectives on the colonization process), but I’d hate for new novels to become tired retreads of the existing material. In any case, I do recommend Zoe’s Tale to anyone who enjoyed the first three, and I also highly recommend Old Man’s War for any SF fans out there (and The Android’s Dream is also quite good!)