In the beginning, there was Old Man’s War. And it was good; like the second coming of Heinlein, people said. (Indeed, now that I’ve read some Heinlein, I’d have to agree.) We met the down-to-earth John Perry; walked with him through rejuvenation, war, and near-death as a soldier in the Colonial Union. Towards the end, we saw the beginnings of a relationship with the deadly practical Jane Sagan, one that brings him full circle.
And then there was The Ghost Brigades. And it was good. This time we followed Jane Sagan, as well as numerous other characters. Here we met Zoë Boutin for the first time, as a young child; and here we also met the Obin, an intelligent race, unique because its individuals lack consciousness—and one that hungers after individual consciousness strongly enough to give Zoë’s father the war against humanity he wants in exchange for his research on storing consciousness outside the body.
Then there was The Last Colony. And it was awesome, coming in a close second place for the Hugo Award (losing by a mere 9 votes). The story reunited protagonists from the two previous books: John Perry, Jane Sagan, and Zoë Boutin-Perry are a family, along with two Obin escorts for Zoë—whom she named Hickory and Dickory when still very young. In the time frame of The Last Colony, Zoë is now a teenager, and John and Jane find themselves leaders of Roanoke—a colony targeted for destruction by a Conclave of over 400 alien races.
Now there’s Zoe’s Tale. And it is so awesome, I think it’ll be up for a 2009 Hugo.
Zoe’s Tale is not a sequel in the normal sense. The Last Colony followed John Perry’s point of view as he tries his best to keep the Roanoke colony alive in the face of a hostile planet, an intelligent race of deadly werewolf-like creatures, and the Conclave. Zoe’s Tale follows the story of his daughter Zoë during the same time. It’s a completely different frame of reference, not the least because she’s a teenage girl, compared to her old man veteran father.
In The Last Colony, Zoë played an important role in saving Roanoke, but one that took place mostly off-screen. Zoe’s Tale details what happened during those days she was off-planet—and if that were all, it would just be another book. But Scalzi wisely takes the story beyond this, and in doing so both broadens and deepens our knowledge and understanding of the events and characters in The Last Colony. You’ll discover more facets about the savage werewolf creatures; more depth in the characters of Enzo and Gretchen, Zoë’s friends; more inspection into the history and creation of the Obin. (Heck, there’s an Obin creation myth, and by itself it makes a wonderful and unique short story.)
And if that was all there was, it would just be another good book. Yet Scalzi again extends himself, and pulls off the feat of the retelling-a-story trick with aplomb: filling Zoë’s life with richness. We see through her eyes in the truest sense of those words, experiencing the seemingly endless tumult that’s the passage from adolescence to adulthood. We get to know her, and what a remarkable person she is; she’s not just as an empty slot for $TEEN_CHARACTER, and while she certainly inherits some of John’s wise-cracking, she isn’t simply John II (female derivative), but her own person, a real teenage girl with a good head on her shoulders (and two rad Obin bodyguards).
They say that genre is all about plot, and less about characters; but Zoe’s Tale shows how plot is colored through character, and character affected by plot.
My teenage self would have loved this book. My current self also loves this book. Even though the protagonist is a teenager, this is a book for both adults and teens, for it never panders and it never drifts off into surreal and naive fantasies.
And even better, Zoe’s Tale still reads excellently as a standalone novel (like the rest of the Old Man’s War series). So if you or someone you know has never experienced the wonderful characters in this world, Zoe’s Tale is a wonderful place to start.