As fate would have it, I found myself in a discussion recently where John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe came up. Talk about behind schedule, though… It’s been over a year since I read Zoe’s Tale. To be honest, I swear I reviewed it (and the other OMW books, for that matter) at some point, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere on the site or my own plethora of storage drives. So here I am… a bit fuzzy on plot details, perhaps, but I have the book propped open next to me and, if necessary, I’ll use it now and again as a bit of a refresher. Be that as it may, I think I’ll try something a bit new since so much time has passed. I’ll try to focus on the lasting impression the novel left me with.
I think every reviewer out there has probably mentioned the obvious Heinlein influences in Scalzi’s series. I’m not an expert on RH by any means, but from my own pedestrian point of view, I find Scalzi to be infinitely more “approachable” in his writing style. Yes, there are similarities to plot construction and thematics, but Scalzi’s isn’t simply mimicking the Grand Master. His voice is all his own, and he excels at creating nuanced, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable characters.
Zoe’s Tale is a “parallel novel” to The Last Colony in much the same way that Ender’s Shadow is a parallel novel to Ender’s Game, which, as it happens, I just finished teaching my college freshmen. Without going into too much summary, it retells the story of TLC from the perspective of teenage Zoe. And it’s the difference in those perspectives that makes ZT such a wonderful story. The Last Colony is a story about the settling of a new world and all the if-it-can-go-wrong-it-will adventures from the perspective of a married couple, he an ex-marine, she the equivalent of ex-special forces. Zoe’s Tale, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of their adopted teenage daughter.
Here’s the meat of it for me: Zoe is, without a doubt, the singular most impressively rendered character I have read in the last five, maybe even ten years, regardless of genre. She’s smart, witty, and sarcastic to a fault. She’s filled with love and angst, desire and rebellion. She’s coming of age in a new world she loathes and loves with adoptive parents she both adores and, at times, wants nothing to do with. Oh, and she’s the messiah for an alien species who have sworn to protect her from harm, even if it means destroying the rest of the human settlement. Most of all, though, Zoe is both charming and compelling, and her story went by far, far to quickly.
Scalzi’s character work with Zoe shouldn’t have surprised me. His characters are consistently strong and fresh, regardless of which of his books are being discussed. It is, I think, the primary reason I continually return to his work. With this is mind, Zoe’s Tale is, I think, the strongest of the books in the Old Man’s War series. And while it is a parallel novel, I don’t think it is necessarily a stand-alone novel. Scalzi, as I remember, does a fine job of filling in the important blanks for those new to the series, but his previous books lay an important foundation of backstory that is impossible to capture in any amount of detailed summary. And while the omitted bits and pieces aren’t necessarily essential information to the telling of Zoe’s Tale, they are, I think influential in how the recurring characters are perceived. But that’s the tricky bit of writing a series, and I’d be compelled to argue with anyone who thinks any part of a multi-novel universe with recurring characters and storylines can successfully “stand alone” within that universe.
Regardless, Zoe’s Tale, like the rest of the OMW series, is a fun, fast read that touches on some weighty subjects. I highly recommend not just Zoe’s Tale, but all the books in the Old Man’s War series.