- TITLE: Zenn Scarlett
- AUTHOR: Christian Schoon
- PUBLISHER: Strange Chemistry
- RELEASE DATE: 2nd May 2013 (UK)
- RATING: ★★★★★
Zenn is a seventeen-year-old trainee exoveterinarian—an exovet. She doesn’t treat cats or dogs or budgerigars; she treats whalehounds, sunkillers and sandhogs. On Mars where she lives in the Ciscan Cloister with her (currently absent) father and uncle, Zenn is dedicating her life to the practise of attending sick and injured alien animals—the practise of her mother before her.
Whilst Zenn might not have the most normal of lives—who does on Mars, really? Since the Rift and everything—she is happiest when treating the animals, especially when she’s allowed to do more than just mop up Otha’s mess. Yet, with her exams approaching and her dreams of progressing to the level above, Zenn needs everything to go as smoothly as possible.
So of course, that’s precisely when everything begins to go wrong. Small things, little things that can be waved away here and there: nothing to worry about. Just accidents, mistakes. But when she experiences something strange during one of her exams, something completely inexplicable occurring between the whalehound and herself, Zenn isn’t so sure she can pass that off so lightly.
Before she knows it, getting through her exams might just be the least of her worries: animosity for the alien creatures the Cloister treats is at an (unusual) all-time high and for the first time in her life, Zenn’s future seems uncertain.
And then, there’s the towner boy Liam, who is definitely interested in something at the Cloister—only Zenn’s not sure what. Towners don’t like the Cloister and yet Liam spends his every free moment lending a helping hand to the Cloister’s sexton, Hamish, a bug-on-loan from a very strict alien planet, sent to help and learn. But towners hate aliens, so Zenn is confused.
More confusion is definitely not what she needs.
Zenn Scarlett is an incredibly imaginative story with masses of bold insight into the human race and just how we might fare once we reach the stars. It is at once deep and light and honestly handles subtle issues of racism/xenophobia and the human assumption that its race is always superior and eternally entitled. These kinds of issues are best explored through YA—in the very least, though YA characters—because it is the non-conservative viewpoints of young people in the Real World that will change mindsets into the future.
I’m going to say, for various reasons, that Zenn Scarlett is quite possibly the definitive book on how YA (and even regular) science fiction should be written. Gone are the unnecessary gritty space stations and hard-ass spacefarers, replaced by a unique and imaginative setting that is bright and so easily envisaged it truly added a whole other layer to its reading experience.
This book reads more like a video game in how it is visually presented and set. Or at least, the video games I play. I’m talking Final Fantasy VIII and Star Ocean: TLH. The aesthetics of these games was so dominant in my mind that they deserve mentions and Schoon deserves top kudos for deviating from the usual science fiction model.
If Square Enix and Atlus (Persona, Shin Megami Tensei) got together and made a video game of this using a powerful enough engine and with the correct focus placed on Zenn’s daily life, the adventure Schoon created would taken to all new levels of awesome. Screw movies: a video game would do this justice.
Zenn Scarlett is gripping in all the right places, and entirely true to its purpose and heart in others—it remains true to the nature of its setting (an exo-vet Cloister/practise) and does not feel the need to invent action or create physical and tangible conflict in order to create tension or energy. All the energy is there through its total honesty.
The book is tightly plotted and with all the right ‘breadcrumbs’ to give the reader the ability to solve the ongoing mystery—and a large hint towards the explanation of events far beyond the first book. It is a subtle hint, but it was tantalisingly obvious for me, and made the end of the book far more exciting. Its characters are energetic and engaging and easy to envisage and welcome into your own imagination—again thanks to the vividly written setting.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect book.
I am growing increasingly more irked at YA characters who react to hurt and pain, especially the death of a parent, by closing off and instating a “Rule” to not let anyone close. By now it’s so cliché and overdone that it hurts and it threatened to turn me off to Zenn right away. However, she does lessen the irk slowly over the course of the story by analysing the Rule and finding it lacking in calculated data and reasoning. This is, of course, character development and evolution, so Schoon gets unexpected kudos for this.
Finally, Schoon is sometimes a little too eager to share the vastness of his imagination: with regards to the animals, there is just too much. A little strangeness is fantastic (I can imagine the sunkiller so perfectly I want to flail, and Katie is fantastic…although my image of the whalehound is that of an embiggened seal with brown fur and very large puppy eyes…?!) but it I feel that Schoon really missed out on the opportunity to geek out over the question of other planetary animal evolution by creating animals that more closely resembled our own, albeit it mahoosive. It would be been super-science-evo geekery. It would have been awesome and I would have fanboyed.
Overall, this is a book you have to take notice of. This book is showing an alternative to how science fiction should be written, whilst simultaneously showing how to write a YA novel lacking in angst, angsty-romance, and overemotional (and annoyingly unrealistic) teens. Zenn Scarlett is like no book you’ve ever read before… and if that’s not enough… just look at that cover…!