Genre: YA Science Fiction
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release Date: May 7 2013
Source: e-ARC from publisher
In a word: a brilliantly imagined world, full of strange and delightful creatures, one adorable rikkaset named Katie, and an explosive but frustrating ending.
“Yotes can snap an ultratheer’s thighbone like a Solstice candy cane.”
If that quote from Zenn Scarlett doesn’t intrigue you, you have no business reading science fiction. Zenn Scarlett was (almost) everything I wanted it to be, but unlike anything I could have imagined. If you love animals, you will love this book. If you love intricate world-building, you will love this book. And if you enjoy a back story with an unsolved mystery, you will love this book. This is the first of two books in a series, and herein lies my problem with Zenn Scarlett (more on that later). I loved this book enough to overlook a couple of issues, because it has a charm and wide-eyed wonder to it that I rarely see in YA books.
Here’s a brief run-down on the story: Zenn Scarlett is a seventeen-year-old exoveterinarian-in-training, which means she’s learning how to care for alien animals. She lives in a cloister on Mars with her uncle Otha, who is training her to become a full-fledged exovet someday. Assisting them is the coleopt Hamish, a beetle-like alien creature who is slowly learning the ways of humans from his pal Zenn. Zenn’s parents are both MIA: her mother Mai (also an exovet) died nine years before in a freak accident, and her father has taken a job on another planet and hasn’t been heard from in months.
As Zenn enters into several exovet tests to determine whether or not she is ready to become an acolyte, bizarre accidents start to happen, and before she knows it, she’s thrust into the middle of a conspiracy that may affect her future, as well as everyone else who lives at the cloister. Luckily Zenn has several trusty friends to help her figure things out, including Hamish the coleopt and Liam, a boy from town who has lately become very interested in Zenn. But who exactly can she trust? For a girl who has lived her entire life cut off from normal human interaction, the lines between friends and enemies are not clearly drawn.
Sunkillers. Yotes. Indra. Whalehounds. Rikkasets. Seepdemons. Sandhogs. These are just some of the alien creatures that live in the pages of Zenn Scarlett. I really wanted an owner’s manual with drawings to better imagine what they look like. Schoon himself is an animal lover, so it’s no wonder he poured so much love and attention to detail into his fictional creations. Every time a new creature is introduced, the author gives us a detailed description of the animal, and believe me, each one is more unusual and extraordinary than the last. Schoon’s imagination is endless, and despite the pauses in the narrative during these informational passages, I was riveted. His best invention, in my opinion, is the Indra, an immense alien animal that powers the starships that are the only transportation between planets. To over-explain the Indra and its method of travel would be to lessen the impact of the reading experience. Oh wait. I also loved the Greater Kiran sunkiller. That was my favorite creature. Damn you, Mr. Schoon…
I loved all the characters, but I have to say I was completely charmed by Hamish. He’s an alien who’s out of his element and trying to learn the ways of humans. Imagine a gigantic beetle that stands about seven or eight feet tall, has antennae, a claw for a hand, and wings that unfold from his carapace-like frame (and yes, he does use his wings, in one of the most exciting scenes in the book!) Hamish starts as a timid creature who is afraid of doing and saying the wrong thing, but he grows into a hero of sorts by the end of the story.
I adored Zenn’s pet rikkaset Katie, a cat-like animal that has the ability to blend into her surroundings and can communicate with Zenn using sign language. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for animal side-kicks, and Katie is one of my all-time favorites. Zenn herself is an interesting girl, but very naïve for her age. She lives by a set of self-imposed rules that prevent her from getting too close to people. But despite this she is resourceful and smart, and I expect her character to only get better in the next book.
Which leads me to the reason I was slightly disappointed in Zenn Scarlett: just as the story gets really good, it ends in a dreaded cliffhanger, forcing the suddenly angry reader (me) to curse the author for making us wait to find out what will happen to Zenn and her friends. The first 75% of the book is lots of set-up as Schoon describes his amazing world, so the pace meanders along until the end, where most of the nail-biting action takes place. It’s not that I haven’t been here before. YA fiction these days is rife with trilogies that do exactly the same thing, but I’ve decided I don’t like this trend. Publishers take note: I’d rather read a 500 or 600-page book and get the complete story, than be forced to throw a 300-page book against the wall in frustration.
So yes, I highly recommend Zenn Scarlett! But be prepared to have questions when you reach the final page: What is the real story behind Mai’s accident? What really happened to Zenn’s father? And what the heck is the nexus anyway? You won’t get all the answers this time around, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book. Zenn Scarlett is unique and special, and I invite you to enter Christian Schoon’s world.