Zoe's Tale

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Series: Old Man's War #4
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: August 2008
Printing: May 2009
ISBN: 0-7653-5619-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 406

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This is the fourth book of the Old Man's War series, but it takes place concurrently with the third book, The Last Colony. It's the same story, but told from Zoë's perspective.

Usually, the technique of retelling a previous novel from a different perspective drives me nuts. Anne McCaffrey's repeated use of this technique during the Pern series wore out my tolerance for it, and I've stopped reading series where each book is half-devoted to retelling the previous novel. I therefore came to Zoe's Tale with misgivings and, despite enjoying the previous book of the series, read it primarily because it was nominated for a Hugo.

I'm glad I did. Zoe's Tale is written as a young-adult novel with a first-person teenage protagonist, but unlike a lot of young-adult novels, I loved the narrator. I have no idea how accurate she is for a teenage girl, but she has a snarky, bantering tone that's a joy to read. Given how much of the book is about her day-to-day life, friendships, and some amount of teen relationship drama, I was amazed at how little it irritated me and how well Scalzi kept me turning the pages.

The major plot events will, of course, be familiar to anyone who read The Last Colony, except for the role that Zoë has in the resolution that was handled off-camera. Zoe's Tale builds up to that moment, adding additional significance around Zoë's sense of self and her place in the alien Obin civilization and mythology that The Last Colony didn't cover. Despite how well-paced and interesting the book was, I did spend the book partly waiting for that payoff, and I thought it lived up to the anticipation. Scalzi complicated Zoë's decisions in several interesting directions, and while the conclusion was a bit easy, I found it satisfying and a bit thought-provoking.

Particularly helpful for the depth of the series universe as well as this entry is the additional depth Scalzi gives to the Obin. The core idea of their species is questionable, feeling in previous books like a joke that lasted longer than one expected. But Zoë has a deep connection with Hickory and Dickory and a mutual respect that only comes out in the background of the previous books, and while it's hard to fully redeem the odd basic idea, Scalzi does a better job than I expected. The Obin are at the center of this story and hold up their place, turning into interesting characters rather than background props in the process.

I think this is the best book of this series, so I'd like to say that one could skip the previous books and just read it, but unfortunately that isn't the case. Apart from Zoë's personal background, which is relatively well-explained in the course of the book, Scalzi relies heavily on the plot parallelism with The Last Colony. We get summaries of the high points of the plot, but I consider them adequate just as a reminder of what one has already read. Without having read The Last Colony, I would have been annoyed at how much I didn't know about the underlying plot. This is particularly bad at the end of the book, where the climax of the underlying plot is dealt with in narrative summary. Even having read The Last Colony, I went back and re-read the conclusion just to remember fully what happened.

Attempting to tell an engrossing novel completely paralleling another is quite difficult, and even though Scalzi was generally successful, it leaves its marks. I can't recommend Zoe's Tale unless you read and liked The Last Colony. But if you're a fan of the series so far, do pick up and read this one; don't skip it as a pointless rewrite. Zoë has the same delightfully sarcastic outlook as Scalzi's other characters but is even better at banter and, in my opinion, more endearing. Zoe's Tale is much lighter in tone than the rest of the Old Man's War series, but I think it is the best-written of the set.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-06-21

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21