At the risk of bringing unwelcome attention to just how very little I paid attention in my high school science classes*, one of my favorite things about Christian Schoon’s Zenn Scarlett is that it—like John Barnes’ Losers in Space, which I also enjoyed immensely—is another entry on the short-but-rapidly-growing list of YA science fiction that reads like it is based in somewhat believable science, rather than in magic disguised as science. Meaning that Schoon makes a real effort to have the details of his title character’s life on Mars sound scientifically plausible.
Or at least plausible to someone with only a very basic understanding of The Science: It’s possible that he just threw a bunch of science-y sounding words around and fooled me. Even if that turns out to be the case, I won’t hold that against him, because it’s a wicked fun read.
Zenn is a 17-year-old girl who’s studying to be an exovet: a veterinarian who specializes in treating alien species. She’s following in the footsteps of her mother, who has been presumed dead for years after suddenly—like, in a split second—disappearing. Zenn is prickly and suspicious, slow to warm up to people and even slower to trust them. She much prefers the company of animals, regardless of their planet of origin, and really, who can blame her? Getting close to people just results in getting hurt, disappointed or left behind.
Now, though, the Cloister where she lives and studies is in danger of being shut down by the xenophobic town council, and the sudden rash of suspicious accidents isn’t helping to swing the vote around in her favor: Zenn Scarlett has a great sense of place, both physical and political; wonderfully described alien species that aren’t at all anthropomorphized; a likable heroine, tight pacing with lots of chapters ending on exciting old-timey serial cliffhangers, and a good amount of humor. I enjoyed it hugely...with a few minor caveats. (You totally knew that was coming, didn’t you?)
The major one is this: Zenn, a girl who is described as suspicious of most people and especially of people from town, doesn’t once suspect handsome townie Liam Tucker of having anything to do with the “accidents.” Which seems unlikely to me, especially given that—despite the bonding and googly eyes they share later on—she’s not his biggest fan at the beginning of the book.
Beyond that, the human characters (and the sentient aliens) are mainly stock characters: Zenn is a prickly know-it-all, her uncle is gruff but loving, Liam is flirty but damaged, Hamish is an insectoid alien whose tendency towards literalism is very reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data. They’re all quite likable—minus the villains, one of whom is revoltingly bigoted and another whose motivations are slightly more complicated, but who is no less one-dimensional—but none of them are all that multi-faceted.
The mystery itself is almost secondary to the worldbuilding, and it really only serves to introduce the larger story and bigger questions—What happened to Zenn’s mother? Who kidnapped her father? What is the nexus?—and regardless of any of my quibbles, I’m really excited to see where Schoon (and Zenn!) goes next.
*Apologies to any and all of my teachers who A) had to put up with me and/or B) are reading this now.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.