John Scalzi’s aliens are sparsely described and unconvincingly Other (he’s no Larry Niven) and his characters are usually some variation on smartass. But his novels, with exciting plots and witty dialogue (see “some variation on smartass,” above), never fail to entertain. So it is with Zoe’s Tale, which is a retelling of the story of The Last Colony (which missed winning this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel by a whisker) from the point of view of the protagonists’ adopted daughter, Zoë. (Why she loses the umlaut in the book’s title, I have no idea.)
The Last Colony suffered from a couple of plot holes (viz., where did those werewolves go, and how did Zoë get that deus-ex-machina technology?) that Zoe’s Tale fills fulsomely. In fact, it’s impossible to consider Zoe’s Tale absent The Last Colony: it’s very much a mirror image of that novel. The two novels are both case studies in limited first-person narration: neither John Perry, the protagonist of The Last Colony and Zoë’s stepfather, nor Zoë herself in Zoe’s Tale, knows exactly what the other is doing; essentially, these are two books trying to tell the same story. Two blind grabs at the same elephant. The end result is that Zoe’s Tale deals in detail with what The Last Colony mentioned in passing; unfortunately, the converse is also true: the grand plot of The Last Colony is given short shrift in Zoe’s Tale — key points are mentioned briefly, plot twists are telegraphed — and I’m not sure if Zoe’s Tale stands alone as a result.
The tension between the novel’s two ambitions — a retelling of the events of The Last Colony from Zoë’s perspective, and an attempt to explore Zoë’s tragic background and her role as an object of veneration for an entire alien species — is sometimes strained, and I think the latter suffers a little bit at the expense of the former. Despite Scalzi’s breezy and accessible prose and the book’s positioning as a young-adult novel, Zoe’s Tale is an ambitious book. Despite its flaws, it mostly succeeds, in that it’s got lots of good bits in it and is fun to read. Which, in the end, is really what matters, don’t you think?