Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi

Tor, 2008, 335 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1698-1

Some of the most difficult moments in a reviewer’s life come when a highly-anticipated work fails to meet certain expectations, or betrays an author’s otherwise sterling reputation. As much as I normally like Scalzi’s fiction, and as much as I was primed to like Zoe’s Tale, it ended up surprising and disappointing me: For the first time while reading a Scalzi novel, I felt impatient.

Fans of Scalzi’s work so far will immediately recognize the plot of the novel: As its title suggests, Zoe’s Tale describes the events of Scalzi’s previous The Last Colony from the perspective of John Perry’s teenage daughter Zoe. Being a sixteen-year-old girl, Zoe’s perspective on the story is different, but not too different. Exception made of a small section at the end of the book, the story beats are roughly the same –-although the last few pages of Roanoke colony’s story remains in The Last Colony.

For readers who read primarily for plot, this makes Zoe’s Tale a surprisingly unsettling experience. While it fills in the beats of Zoe’s story and explains a few passing references in its source book, Zoe’s Tale often feels like a rehash of known material; another trip around the same block in a slightly different vehicle. The Old Man’s War universe isn’t significantly deepened by this entry, nor are we getting a perspective that contradicts John Perry’s. At most, an enigmatic reference is cleared up, and events that are more important to Zoe than her father are told in more detail. (Unlike other parallax novels such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow, there’s also little playfulness with what readers are supposed to know from having read the previous book.) Readers may want, for extra credit, to compare a few scenes as told in both books to see the different perspectives of the two characters.

Fortunately, there is something else than a simple plot re-hash going on here: Zoe’s Tale is perhaps best appreciated as an attempt to re-tell The Last Colony in a YA-friendly female teenager’s voice. As a style exercise, if you prefer. As such, it’s somewhat more successful: Scalzi’s attempt to write like a 16-year-old girl cleanly evokes the confusion, thrills, quirks and friendship bonds of that demographic.

This being said, it isn’t much of a stretch for Scalzi to map his own usual sarcastic smart-ass prose style onto another sarcastic smart-ass character, even if she happens to be a 16-year-old girl on a brand-new colony world. It just so happens that her friends are, by and large, a generally sarcastic smart-ass group, and that the people she most values around her are also sarcastic smart-asses. (If nothing else, Roanoke Colony’s got a bright future in exporting comedians.) Scalzi’s has previously acknowledged his Heinleinian influences, but Zoe also echoes some of Heinlein’s teenage protagonists in that she’s the prototypical Competent Teenager; rarely wrong and of reliable judgment. It’s a typical SF character type, but the pattern can be amusing once it becomes obvious.

Plot and characterization, however, haven’t been Scalzi’s strengths as much as his easy prose style and his humor, and in that sense Zoe’s Tale is another success for him. It’s a fast and enjoyable read that won’t disappoint his regular readers who don’t mind some déjà vu. For the others, however, Zoe’s Tale is perhaps Scalzi’s most disappointing novel so far, and one that sends the Old Man’s War universe in diminishing-returns territory. More demanding readers may want to wait until the paperback and lower their expectations accordingly.

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