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Book Review: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

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In his fourth novel set in the world of Old Man’s War that jumpstarted John Scalzi’s career in writing science fiction, the author doubles back for a second helping of story from his last novel, The Last Colony. With a new voice, new events, and a batch of new stakes, Scalzi rekindles that reading experience to white-hot intensity.

The protagonist is a teenaged girl named Zoe who has an interesting background that has shaped not only her present, but her foreseeable future. She was a secondary character in The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony, but now she’s center stage. Although Scalzi’s work has often been compared to Robert A. Heinlein’s, with this new protagonist, those parallels have never been more sharply defined. I constantly felt as though I were 12 years old again, hunkered down with one of Heinlein’s novels for juveniles.

Zoe is a marvelous character and leaps from the pages. As a kid, I knew girls like her. As an adult, I raised a daughter like her in so many ways. The fierce independence and need to shield her parents from her world (and to protect her privacy) was endearing.

Scalzi’s voice in the first-person narrative is pitch-perfect. If I hadn’t known the writer was male, I wouldn’t have believed it. The views and opinions Zoe and her best friend Gretchen shared were incredibly well done.

I enjoyed the portrayal of the scientific realm as well, especially the way that it was rendered through Zoe’s eyes. Her chief concern was her PDA, and it was just as much a part of her as a modern teenager’s cell phone: for calls, for pictures and videos, for texting, and for storing media. The other things (like the interplanetary ship) were primarily taken for granted since they were in the adult world.

Zoe’s crush on Enzo was particularly good as well. I like the way the couples paired off, and the fact that their close relationships later caused problems for all of them when those friendships also became liabilities.

Readers of The Last Colony are going to know most of the major arcs of the story and won’t find any true surprises in this book regarding those. But to hear the story in Zoe’s words, to find out all the behind-the-scenes action that was going on regarding Zoe and her alien protectors, to find out more about the “werewolves” in the forests outside the colony’s containment walls is a veritable feast made from leftovers. Sure, the story’s been told before in some regards, but there’s a reason twice-backed potatoes are popular too.

Not many writers can pull off a second visit to what is — essentially — the same story. Scalzi not only does pull this off, but he brings so much more out of the second trip in such a unique way that this trip through doesn’t even feel like the same book. Even though so many of the characters and situations are familiar, I was swept away to another world seemingly made whole from the one I’d only thought I knew.

I enjoy Scalzi’s writing. He’s deceptively easy to read. His voice, whichever voice he’s using, always rings true and pulls me through his novels. Zoe’s voice was hauntingly familiar from the Heinlein juveniles, but Scalzi just has a much better hook on today’s kids.

Zoe’s Tale is a perfect book to offer a young reader. Especially one that’s wondering why you’re reading Scalzi’s books. A young reader doesn’t have to read the preceding three books because this novel is self-contained. It’s a great exposure to the Old Man’s War books, and it might just have your kid raiding your book shelves or the local library for Scalzi’s previous novels. If that happens, you’re going to have competition for his next book!

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