Zoe’s Tale is the parallel novel that accompanies The Last Colony. I’m impressed that Scalzi even attempted to write a second book covering much of the same temporal territory, and I’m even more impressed that he was able to write something that stood on its own despite the fact that I already knew (almost) exactly what was going to happen.
I understand that some people (like my friend Ben) don’t like Zoe’s Tale as much as they like the other books in the Old Man’s War universe. And I can see why: if you were looking for a totally new story, Zoe’s Tale isn’t the place to go. On the other hand, if you are just looking for a good read and are ok with covering some ground that you’ve already been over before, Zoe’s Tale is perfectly solid and enjoyable. My opinion of the book may be influenced by the fact that I didn’t have to wait for it to come out and didn’t have to wait for the next book in the series; there are a number of failings which instant gratification will fix.
But I don’t think it’s fair to call the repetition in Zoe’s Tale a failing. Maybe I just feel this way because I’m impressed by Scalzi’s ability to weave a second story in behind all the elements that I already knew, but I really do think that Zoe’s Tale is quite excellent. Scalzi manages to take a story that I’ve already heard before (right down to many of the essential details, and occasionally even the conversations) and offers it back up in an exciting fashion, following a character that I’ve only ever seen moving around on the sidelines before. It’s great. Also, damn, what a climax.
Enough of generalities! Let’s get down to some specifics, shall we?
If you read my review of The Last Colony, you might recall my mention of a deus ex machina moment very nearly at the end of the book. Zoe’s Tale addresses that, and does so very effectively. I won’t say that it makes up for the original surprise, but according to Scalzi the whole thing was planned out before hand and just didn’t fit or make sense in The Last Colony.
And I’m glad that it showed up in this story, because it makes for an awesome climactic ending. Not only that, but it gives (without spoiling too much) Zoe a chance to examine her conscience and reassess the way in which she has used her special privileges. All in all, good stuff; I’d be happy to see more books about Zoe being super cool and dealing with aliens.
So, uh, speaking of Zoe… I don’t think I’m really in a good place to determine how “real” her voice was, but I was certainly convinced. Her voice was also remarkably consistent, something which I can only imagine came from many many many rewrites and the occasional flash of insight. I don’t want to simply copy Zoe’s voice for my own use, but I very much admire what Scalzi has done here and would like to be able to do the same. My guess is that I’ll need a lot of practice.
Another thought before I wrap this up: I’m impressed with the way in which Scalzi seamlessly fit this story into the mould of a young adult novel. I’m not entirely sure of how useful the label “young adult” is when trying to distinguish between different stories, and perhaps this story is just more proof that the prescribed form is highly artificial in the first place, but Scalzi manages to stick to the standard requirements while still delivering all the excitement that I would have expected. And he does it while maintaining the continuity of his story from his previous books. It’s quite well done.
In conclusion, this is definitely worth the read. You don’t have to read it in order to make sense of what has been going on in the series, because Scalzi continues to be good at making all of his novels work as standalone pieces, but my guess is that you’ll enjoy it enough to want to anyway. The behind-the-scenes actions taken by Zoe make excellent adventure-fodder, and I was very excited to learn more about the alien races of the setting. The Obin get all the special attention that they deserve, and seeing how they relate to Zoe is more than worth the price of admission.