Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsZoe’s Tale by John ScalziZoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Zoe’s Tale (2008), the fourth book in John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR series, is the same story we were told in book three, The Last Colony, except it’s from Zoe’s perspective. Zoe is the 17-year-old daughter of the traitorous scientist Charles Boutin. Jane Sagan and John Perry adopted Zoe when she was a small child and they’ve been farming on one of Earth’s colonies for years. Now, though, the family is off to lead the settlers of a new colony called Roanoke (uh-oh). When they get there they realize they’ve been duped and life on Roanoke has a lot more going on than just terraforming a new planet.

While I was reading The Last Colony there were several times I wondered “what’s Zoe doing?” or “what does Zoe think about this?” or even “is Zoe the sweet innocent teenager her parents think she is?” I guess John Scalzi knew I was wondering those things, because the sole purpose of Zoe’s Tale is to let us know what Zoe was doing and thinking all this time. Thus we hear the same plot again — there isn’t really any plot progression — but we do get to know Zoe and we get information about the events that only Zoe experienced in The Last Colony. Mostly these occur at the end of the story when Zoe has a major role in saving Roanoke colony.

I liked getting to know Zoe in this novel, but I found the lack of new plot to be disappointing. I also was not convinced by Scalzi’s characterization of Zoe, mainly because she and her teenage friends banter with each other as if John Scalzi was writing their dialogue. They’re just too clever to be believed.

My favorite characters in Zoe’s Tale were Hickory and Dickory, the aliens who revere Zoe’s father and act as Zoe’s bodyguards. Their lack of a sense of humor, literal interpretation of human speech, and deadpan delivery of their lines is charming. I listened to Tavia Gilbert’s narration and she does a wonderful job with them (and Zoe and the rest of the characters, too). Hickory and Dickory also supply some background information about one of the alien races that I hope we will see more of in a future installment.

If you’re not interested in a sometimes angsty teenage girl’s perspective of the events that occurred in The Last Colony, there’s no reason to read Zoe’s Tale. If you haven’t read The Last Colony you could read Zoe’s Tale instead — you’d be caught up with the story so far. I don’t know if Scalzi plans for Zoe to be protagonist in a future book. If she is, then I’ll be glad I read this story of her childhood and teenage years.

I’m giving Zoe’s Tale 3.5 stars for those who haven’t read The Last Colony. In that case it’s an enjoyable novel with a lot of plot and some great characters. If you have read The Last Colony, I’d give this book a 3 star rating. It’s just not enough new plot.

~Kat Hooper

Zoe’s Tale by John ScalziZoe’s Tale, the fifth book in John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR series, is told from the point of view of Zoe Boutin-Perry. Zoe’s biological father was a human scientist who gave self-awareness to the race of the Obin. Unfortunately, Earth and the Colonial Union were at war with the Obin at the time. Boutin was a traitor in the minds of humans. To the Obin, he was a god, and Zoe is the daughter of a god. She is a cultural icon to the Obin. When her father was killed, Zoe was adopted by John and Jane Perry. Two Obin companions, who Zoe calls Hickory and Dickory, follow her everywhere and also function as a security detail. And they broadcast nearly every aspect of Zoe’s life back home to the Obin planets.

In Zoe’s Tale, we hear the events of the colonialization of Roanoke, the CU’s last colony (and the setting of the book The Last Colony) from her point of view, that of a super-smart, self-sufficient, very self-confident seventeen-year-old. I don’t think Zoe or her friend Gretchen are realistic teenaged girls, but they are girls I would have loved reading about when I was a teenager.

I liked the early parts of the book, when Zoe meets Gretchen, and the boy who is her first official boyfriend, Enzo. I enjoy any scene with Zoe, Hickory and Dickory, since the Obin are extremely literal and do not have a sense of humor, or at least one that includes word-play. Or perhaps they do, and it is very subtle. That uncertainty is played for laughs throughout the book.Old Man's War by John Scalzi (Author)

Zoe and the Obin play a big role in saving Roanoke, and we get to see the details of that salvation. The Obin will give Zoe anything she requires, and she knows that. This is a race whose members will sacrifice themselves by the thousands to achieve an objective, and Zoe knows that too. I thought a point in the book where Zoe affects shock and horror on finding out that a group of Obin had done just that didn’t ring true. Zoe is struggling with her identity, who she is to the Obin as well as what she is, but the Obin do what they were going to do anyway, so I’m not sure what the lesson was. And halfway through Zoe’s stirring speech to her Obin followers, I started hearing Kenneth Branagh in my head saying, “…but we in it shall be remembered, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” so maybe I got distracted.

A big disappointment, one that I can’t reveal without major spoilers, was the story about Zoe and one of the intelligent natives on Roanoke, the “werewolves.” I had hoped that Zoe’s Tale would resolve a dangling plot-thread. Zoe morphed into a cross between Supergirl and Professor Xavier for this sequence, and then failed to follow through with the colony leaders. It’s just possible that Zoe’s decision not to tell anyone what had happened with the werewolves leaves the colony in a worse situation than I thought they were in.

On the other hand, watching Zoe and Enzo meet, fall in love, fight, break up and come to some sort of resolution was touching, and deftly handled. (With two nonhuman killer bodyguards, Zoe is not an easy girl to approach.) And while it might not have felt completely believable, I enjoyed watching Zoe interact with the Obin, with the Conclave and even with the remote, superior and cruel Consu.

There is no new ground here, but for people who like their science fiction escapist and their heroines brilliant, brave and snarky, Zoe’s Tale is a good read.

~Marion Deeds

Release date: August 19, 2008. How do you tell your part in the biggest tale in history? I ask because it’s what I have to do. I’m Zoe Boutin Perry: A colonist stranded on a deadly pioneer world. Holy icon to a race of aliens. A player (and a pawn) in a interstellar chess match to save humanity, or to see it fall. Witness to history. Friend. Daughter. Human. Seventeen years old. Everyone on Earth knows the tale I am part of. But you don’t know my tale: How I did what I did — how I did what I had to do — not just to stay alive but to keep you alive, too. All of you. I’m going to tell it to you now, the only way I know how: not straight but true, the whole thing, to try make you feel what I felt: the joy and terror and uncertainty, panic and wonder, despair and hope. Everything that happened, bringing us to Earth, and Earth out of its captivity. All through my eyes. It’s a story you know. But you don’t know it all.

Old Man’s War — (2005-2015) Nominated for a Hugo Award. Publisher: John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce — and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding. Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets. John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine — and what he will become is far stranger.

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  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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