Book Review: Zoë’s Tale

John Scalzi wanted to set aside the universe introduced in Old Man’s War for awhile, but readers tempted him back to write one more novel—a retelling of The Lost Colony from the perspective of a teenage girl. It’s sort of retro-Heinleinesque YA– and it’s up for a 2009 Hugo.

Title: Zoë’’s Tale

Author: John Scalzi
ISBN-10: 0-7653-1698-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-1698-1
First Published: August 2008

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An adolescent girl, her life already complicated by being a treaty point in negotiations with an alien species, finds herself on a new colony and at the center of an interplanetary conflict.

High Point

Zoë may be a too-good-to-be true, kickass teeny girl hero, but I enjoyed her interactions with aliens. She has a key scene with Roanoke’s indigenous “werewolves.” The incident explains a niggling plot point from The Lost Colony and works as a pivotal moment in Zoe’s Tale, both in terms of plot development and (too often overlooked) character.

Low Point

I recognize the conventions of the YA Golden Age SF novel, and Scalzi uses them well, overall. Obviously, the hero must find herself at the center of Important Events in such a tale. Nevertheless, I found Zoë had one too many perfect moments, one too many eye-rolling dates with destiny.

The Scores:

Originality: 1/6. The story from the outset presents a problem for originality. Scalzi, often compared to Heinlein (with justification, though he has his own voice), has written a YA about a young person who plays a key role in human-alien relationships, and he retells the plot of an existing novel. It’s not, in short, very original. This does not, however, make it a bad book.

Imagery: 4/6. Given the quality of his concepts, I wish Scalzi would provide us with more description. That, coupled with his growing fame, might (as a bonus) result in the publishers and cover artists giving him less derivative book covers.

Story: 5/6. The story still works. Some aspects of the plot work better than they did in The Lost Colony, while others suffer from the perspective. Never mind. This isn’t Scalzi’s best, but the tale holds, and it kept my interest despite the fact that I knew how most of it would turn out.

Characterization: 4/6. Scalzi writes in the Acknowledgments about the difficulties he encountered creating a believable adolescent female character and how much help he found in the women in his life, and his daughter. Honestly—and speaking as someone who often works with adolescents– Zoë’s not bad, and she does carry the story. Still, even given her unusual experiences, she’s too perfect and too much a Scalzi smartass. I’ve always found this a problem with Scalzi. He creates page-turning novels filled with nifty aliens and interesting worlds, but he often loses me with his characters.

Zoë’s relationship with her alien friends works well, and her story overall offers an interesting comment on maturation. When do we stop being what others believe us to be?

Emotional Response: 4/6. Scalzi creates page-turning novels with nifty aliens. He cuts back on the space-violence here, but his book remains fun, particularly if you’re into Golden Agesque SF. Scalzi does that, with a contemporary sensibility, and as few people writing today do.

Editing: 5/6.

Overall score: 4/6. This book works best as a YA, and may introduce any number of readers to SF (I have fond memories of the not-dissimilar Red Planet). For those interested in Scalzi, however, I would recommend his classic Old Man’s War Trilogy first– which starts strong and gains depth as it develops.

In total, Zoë’s Tale receives 27/42.

Note, please, the negative impact of the “originality” category.