Zoë’s Tale can be read on its own, but it fits better as a companion novel to Scalzi’s previous book, The Last Colony. It follows the events of that novel through the eyes of Zoë, the teenaged adoptive daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, the protagonists of the first three of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels. Scalzi writes in the afterward that he was moved to write this novel partly to illuminate the character of Zoë, who plays a pivotal role in the story despite not being the protagonist, and to fill in some perceived gaps in the story, particularly Zoë’s role in the climax, which happens off-stage. I was skeptical of a companion book like this, in part because I think The Last Colony is fine as it is, but Zoë’s Tale is actually perfectly entertaining on its own.
You can read the synopsis of the overall plot in my review of The Last Colony, and it serves largely as backdrop here: The nitty-gritty details of colonizing a hostile world, the living in fear of being discovered by hostile aliens, and the duplicity of the human government are downplayed: They’re all elements on the minds of Zoë and other colonists, but they’re not things they have to grapple with every minute, because they’re not the colony’s leaders. Instead the book is about Zoë and her perceptions as all this is going on, and particularly her journey to discover her role in the universe. And it’s a big role, because a friendly alien race, the Obin, revere her as the daughter of the human scientist who gave them consciousness, and two of them, Hickory and Dickory, are her bodyguards and watchers. She was eight when all this started, but as she’s grown up she’s stopped seeing it as some cool thing that makes her special and started wondering why she should be so special, and found that being followed around by two overprotective aliens is in fact a little bit annoying, especially since – other than keeping her safe (which until this adventure has not been a big issue) – it doesn’t really benefit her or anyone she knows very much. Well, other than that this situation is a condition of the peace treaty between humanity and the Obin. But that’s not a very personal sort of benefit.
Zoë is a very likable character, although she becomes a little annoying since she sees a little too transparently to be a vehicle for Scalzi to express his own considerable facility for sarcasm. I’m as big a fan (and fount) of sarcasm as anyone, but her interactions with John and with her best friend Gretchen seemed a little too cute and too perfect, and this made the first third of a book hard going at times, especially since the other events in this period were basically a recapitulation of The Last Colony. Zoë and her friends become much more interesting once the colony is abandoned on the planet Roanoke and the tensions become ratcheted up: Then it becomes more of a tale of people (some smart, some rather stupid) dealing with exceptional situations, where Zoë is sometimes the voice of reason and sometimes one of the rebellious kids.
So the enjoyment of the story mainly comes from seeing Zoë grow from this sarcastic kid into a responsible young woman, a growth forced by her love of her family and friends and recognition that she has resources that no one else has. She demonstrates that she’s responsible and smart when she helps save two of her friends from the local alien race on Roanoke through cleverness and bravery. And she demonstrates a deeper level of responsibility when we follow her into space to meet with several races who are involved in the drama that John and (through him) the rest of humanity is playing out. In some ways that meeting is the most compelling development in the book, as she befriends the leader of the group who plan to wipe out their colony (getting involved in their own political battles), and also resolves her position with the Obin as a means of getting a boon from the much more powerful race of the Consu. On the other hand, the direct meeting with the Consu feels a little too much like a pivotal scene in Old Man’s War, only without the denouement of the actual combat, and the three lines that punctuate that climax feel too abrupt. I see that Scalzi felt that the key moment had already been written and everything else was not essential, but it still felt awkward and pulled me out of the story.
Zoë’s Tale moves the tone of the Old Man’s War stories away from more “serious” military/political SF and toward purely humanistic SF (in the Kim Stanley Robinson mode). On the one hand it’s a welcome evolution (one I appreciate a lot more than the farcical style of the unrelated The Android’s Dream), but on the other hand I think Scalzi is at his best when he’s writing a story about plans-within-plans, or the people trying to figure out and foil those plans, which means this novel has less of Scalzi’s best stuff in it. As I said, it’s a companion volume, and ultimately not as good as The Last Colony (which, to be fair, is quite good), and it does little to advance our understanding of the OMW universe, which is a bit disappointing. It’s an enjoyable read, and while Scalzi had developed a lot as a writer since Old Man’s War, but I don’t think it measures up to the first three.