John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale is yet another masterpiece from this SF author. Amazingly enough, he tells a story concurrent with the events of The Last Colony, but makes it fascinating despite that. I had put off reading the book for a bit, thinking that I didn't want to read a story that simply told the events of a previous novel from a different point of view (John Perry's adopted daughter, Zoe). I should have had more faith. The focus is totally different, that of a 17-year-old girl instead of the head of the colony. More importantly, it fills some noticeable gaps in the previous novel as well.
Zoe is the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, veterans of the Colonial Defense Force and now governors of a human colony. The CDF asks them to head up a new colony, Roanoke, that's designed to provoke an alien alliance called the Conclave that wants to stop all unauthorized colonization. This provocation is designed to lead into the annihilation and dismemberment of the Conclave, but Zoe and the rest of the colonists don't know all this. Through Zoe's eyes, we see the colonists try to deal with the fact that they can't use any electronic equipment for fear of discovery, and the hardships of initial colonization. As events progress, Zoe finds her unique history as bridge between humanity and the Obin people (her real father gave them consciousness) may be the only thing that can save them all.
Told in the first person, Zoe's Tale gives us an intimate look into Zoe's thoughts and actions, and Scalzi captures (at least to my limited knowledge) the voice of a teenage girl going through not only hormones and typical teenage angst but also a unique upbringing. She's sometimes sarcastic, a trait learned from her "Dad" (John and Jane are "Mom" and "Dad", while her birth parents are "father" and "mother"). She's also quite intelligent, without becoming the super-character that some authors make their teenagers.
Zoe's is part of a treaty between the Obin and the CDF. Her father gave them consciousness, but they don't know how to use it. She has two guardians, named by the very young Zoe as Hickory and Dickory. They not only watch over her, they also record everything she does so that the Obin can learn how to use their sentience from her. Her relationship with them alternates between love and annoyance, along with occasional anger when she thinks they've taken things too far.
Scalzi's characterization skills are at the top of the scale as usual - all of these characters leap off the page in full 3-D. There's Zoe, her pal Gretchen, her boyfriend, Enzo, and his friend. John and Jane are good as usual, since Scalzi's been writing them for years. The relationship between Zoe and Enzo is sweet well-done, with the typical teenage stuff getting in the way of things, along with Zoe's status as colony leader's daughter. There isn't a false note in any of it.
Scalzi's prose makes the book. Told with characteristic wit and excellent plotting, there isn't a wasted word in the entire novel. The humor comes from the characters, most of whom have some sort of sarcastic streak (the one weakness I would say Scalzi has is that, no matter what the book, every character is a smartass). Scalzi can switch it from funny to intense with the flick of a switch, though, and Zoe's Tale is a good example. When Zoe is finally sent on the mission that only she can do, we see that her sarcasm can be a cover for just how scared she is. All of that responsibility on a 17-year-old girl can be quite daunting.
Despite the fact that it basically tells the same story as The Last Colony, it never gets dull. We see a lot of the "off-screen" Zoe action that we missed in that book, as well as a rational explanation for the semi-deus ex machine ending. That's one reason Scalzi wrote the book, according to his author's note; fans told him that was one of the major failings of that book, and Scalzi didn't want to leave it that way. Zoe's Tale explains it all. The major events of the novel are the same as what we've read before, but the strikingly different point of view gives them a different emphasis, not to mention the fact that Scalzi delivers a wonderful personal tale along with it. The climax, where Zoe learns just how much of an icon she is to the Obin and what that means, is extremely powerful.
John Scalzi makes me jealous every time I read one of his books. I could not find anything in this novel that marred my opinion of it, and I read it very quickly because I just couldn't put it down. The sarcasm does start to mildly grate after a while, especially when everybody's doing it, but that's the furthest I can go. Zoe's Tale is yet another feather in Scalzi's cap, and as for him making a misstep? So far, it isn't happening.