Author: Christian Schoon
Genre: YA, MG, Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Space Western
Publication Date: May 7, 2013 (Strange Chemistry/Angry Robot – North America)
Source: NetGalley Review Copy
Summary: When you’re studying to be exoveterinarian specializing in exotic, alien life forms, school… is a different kind of animal.
Zenn Scarlett is a resourceful, determined 17-year-old girl working hard to make it through her novice year of exovet training. That means she’s learning to care for alien creatures that are mostly large, generally dangerous and profoundly fascinating. Zenn’s all-important end-of-term tests at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars are coming up, and, she’s feeling confident of acing the exams. But when a series of inexplicable animal escapes and other disturbing events hit the school, Zenn finds herself being blamed for the problems. As if this isn’t enough to deal with, her absent father has abruptly stopped communicating with her; Liam Tucker, a local towner boy, is acting unusually, annoyingly friendly; and, strangest of all: Zenn is worried she’s started sharing the thoughts of the creatures around her. Which is impossible, of course. Nonetheless, she can’t deny what she’s feeling.
Now, with the help of Liam and Hamish, an eight-foot sentient insectoid also training at the clinic, Zenn must learn what’s happened to her father, solve the mystery of who, if anyone, is sabotaging the cloister, and determine if she’s actually sensing the consciousness of her alien patients… or just losing her mind. All without failing her novice year….
☆: 3/5 stars – a solid debut for Schoon, but could have been a little more clear on a whole bunch of things.
Review: So, “Zenn Scarlett”. I’m still not entirely how to shelve this book in terms of genre – is it YA, or MG? Or is it riding the fine line between them? While this was a really solid debut for Schoon, I think it needed at least one or two more edits before getting to the ARC stage of things because a lot of things needed clarification. While I’m happy this book is yet another we can add to the space western canon within MG/YA, at the same time, I just wish it’d been clearer. Nevertheless, I did have fun with “Zenn Scarlett”, and I think other readers will too.
What was good: the worldbuilding, for the most part. We get this really interesting version of Mars – it’s not completely safe for human living. In fact, we live in bubbles on this version of Mars, and without them, well, we’ll die. I liked that sense of desperation there, and the fact that Earth isn’t really talking to Mars in a very American Civil War-esque kind of way makes for a very interesting dynamic between the haves and the havenots, the settlers and the prospectors. And in the middle, we have the Ciscans (presumably descended from the Franciscan order, though this is not really delved into too much) – an order that used to be religious, but now focuses on exoanimal medicine. We get a lot of backstory as to how the “Rift” between Earth and Mars started, and how everything got to this point in Zenn’s world, but we’re not given solid dates as to orient ourselves in terms of how far in the future we are from right now. Which was a bit frustrating because I like to know where we are in time. All we’re told is that it’s at least a few hundred years from now, and there’s a Star Trek-like Union of planets that Earth and Mars are apart of. When Schoon chose to use sensory imagery and language, he really knows how to do it. But unfortunately, there is a lot of telling over showing (especially in terms of the backstory), and that made things a little difficult to keep up with. I can see how it would work for MG (especially young MG), but not YA.
What really needed work: the character building. While the simple parts of Zenn and her main cast (Hamish was my favorite) were pretty sturdy, I wanted a little more complication in terms of how their characters function. We’re given a lot of details (like how age is calculated and used due to Mars’ orbit time, etc), but some of the more important and finer aspects as to what drives these characters is more or less glossed over. Example: we know why Hamish is there – because his Queen Mother-Spawn sent him, and that’s what’s expected of him. I wanted more complication – though Hamish is an insectoid creature, it felt kind of speciesist to keep him so simple and almost robotic in some of his actions. As for Zenn, we know why she wants to be an exovet (the incident with her mother at the beginning was a great way to create tension there), but at the same time, for most of the book, all it’s about is not the tension with bandits going around as if in a western novel, or about how resources are starting to run out (kind of important) for the humans on the planet – but just focused on passing her exam. And for me, frankly, that just wasn’t enough. I wanted more.
Zenn is 16 – we’re told this through the narration, which couldn’t seem to settle between 3rd close and 3rd omniscient. However, her actions, her voice seemed to speak more toward 13 or 14, regardless of how age is calculated between Earth and Mars’ orbital standards. In so many ways, it felt like Schoon was writing down to the audience, and that was really frustrating, too. Very obvious things that apparently had to be explained to Hamish (give the dude a break, he’s an insect and obviously got into the Ciscan order – he’s got enough smarts) like “intolerance is bad and diversity is good” and so forth. While I can see the cultural divide into how a lot of the things Zenn and Hamish talked about had to be explained to the poor bugdude, a lot of it could have been cut.
Thus, my confusion – is this YA? Or MG? By the narrative tone, I’d say it’s late MG or early YA. But Zenn is 16 – and she should sound (and act) much older.
What I really liked in terms of character building: Zenn’s strange superpower with the exoanimals around her. I thought that was great, and I wanted a lot more of that than I actually got. But since we’re set up for book two, I may just read it if for more explanation into what’s going on with her abilities and how it may change the world around her for good. Also, some more diversity on her animals would be awesome (though I want her cat-like creature, Katie. Can I has? Please?) – not just mammals next time around.
Otherwise? I just think this one needed a bit more cleaning up (and hopefully will get it) by the time it gets pubbed. It was a lot of fun, and I love that space westerns are combining with space opera to make a really fun bastard genre that’s finally really making its way into the YA/MG canons in a solid way. “Zenn Scarlett” is out May 7, 2013 from Strange Chemistry in North America, so definitely be sure to check it out. We’ll have a guest post from the author on the blog for the tour on May 10, 2013, so be sure to check out what Schoon has to say about his process then!