Zoe's Tale: Scalzi's smart-ass young-adult sf thriller

John Scalzi's a hell of a writer and a hell of a smartass, and Zoe's Tale, his debut young adult novel, features one of the most likable, most smart-assy protagonists I've ever had the pleasure of sharing 330 pages with.

Zoe's Tale is set in the Old Man's War universe -- the universe established in his debut novel -- in which the human race has begun to colonize the stars, creating a secretive military bureaucracy that oversees it all. The shock troops of the colonization effort are genetically modified supermen who started out as senior citizens on the overcrowded Earth before opting to get a new finely tuned body and a new lease on life battling the alien races that compete with human beings for access to the plum planets that can sustain life.

The Lost Colony, the third Old Man's War book, tells the story of the Roanoke colony, the first colony made up of colonists from other worlds (instead of Earth) that single-handedly stands off a fleet of 400 alien races that are determined to wipe the colony out.

In Zoe's Tale, we have the same story, told from the point of view of a different character, Zoe Boutin Perry, the adopted teenage daughter of the colony leaders (themselves ex-military supersoldiers from the previous volumes). Zoe is incredibly likable, believable, and witty -- a smartass's smartass. She also has a unique position in interstellar politics: her birth father, Charles Boutin, created a technology that gives consciousness to a powerful alien race called the Obin. The Obin had been uplifted into intelligence by a race of cruel and godlike aliens who endowed them with intelligence but not consciousness. The Obin revere Zoe as a goddess and her safety and disposition are the matter of a complex treaty between humanity and the Obin.

Zoe is a colonist on the sleepy backwater world of Huckleberry when her parents are tapped to lead the experimental Roanoke colony, a move she wholeheartedly supports. On the colony ship, she makes a group of fast friends and emerges as a leader herself, something that is doubly important once the ship arrives and it transpires that Roanoke isn't what they were promised. Instead, the new colony is a pawn in a galaxy-spanning military game that endangers all the colonists and exposes them to hardship.

As the story plays out, Zoe blossoms beyond her outer shell of witty barbs and finds hidden reservoirs of strength and maturity. On her journey, she is forced to confront the inequity of her relationship to the Obin, and to question the nature of intelligence and consciousness.

This is a novel for young people that has it all: action and adventure, science and philosophy, love and angst. Scalzi's own likable personality (and that of his delightful daughter, Athena) shines through the narration, making these people into just the sort of folks you'd like to be stranded on a hostile planet with.

Zoe's Tale on Amazon


  1. Question from the father of an 11-year-old boy: is this book suitable for him? He loves his sci-fi (he blazed through the Artemis Fowl books), loves reading in general, and is rather mature for his age.


  2. Just finished reading Old Man’s War, and to paraphrase Kenny Banya, “It’s gold, Jerry! GOLD!” Seriously, had trouble putting it down.

  3. Tom, that depends on your standards for “as good”. It’s a nice adventure, but Zoe is a bit older than Podkayne, so there’s teenage themes and adult themes. The ending of Zoe’s Tale is as big of a tear jerker as Podkayne, though.

    If you like Heinlein, you’ll probably like Scalzi’s works. Try Old Man’s War first.

    MDH – Scalzi’s busy at his own blog.

  4. I just finished Lost Colony. The dialog is wonderfully witty. Two characters have a snarky relationship whose conversations remind me of deadpan back and forth in a Nick and Nora movie or Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud in the movie Arthur.

    What I also liked about Lost Colony is that it deals with the issue of power plays being run by various groups all at the same time and how doing the honorable thing sometimes is important to do and has consequences beyond what you can imagine.

    I’m looking forward to Zoe’s Tale and her smartass comments to people besides her “90 year old dad”.

  5. It’s “The Last Colony,” not “lost.” I had to run to the bookshelf to double-check cuz I was suddenly feeling odd to have read the title wrong (and told other folks about it wrong), but no, I read it correctly. LAST, not LOST.

    Oh, and yeah, I’ve been waiting for this one to come out in paperback. I got turned on to Scalzi’s work via the Tor newsletter, and I’m a big fan. Smartass for sure, but yeah, a very good writer.

  6. Is it just me, or the dodgeball team Dragons is a hidden bow to Orson Scott Card and the Dragon team in “Endril’s Game” novel ?

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