Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release Date: 7 May 2013
Genre: YA, Sci-fi
Page Count: 304 (paperback)
Back in the 90s/early 2000s, there was this surge in cinema of the family friendly ‘performance saves the day’ type movies. You know, where the poor downtrodden dance group/cheerleading squad/singing class/sports team needs to put on a performance to raise money to save the destruction of their hall/teacher/lessons because some greedy developer wants to knock down their building and replace it with hotels or whatever? And they have some vague problems like someone tries to burn down the hall anyway or sabotages the music or equipment, but the plucky heroes eventually overcome their difficulties to give a successful performance/game and the villain is arrested and everyone lives happily ever after.
That was this book. Minus the performance and the happily ever after because it’s clearly a set up for a second novel. Oh, and this conflict was secondary to what I would like to call a plot, but really, following a doctor around all day isn’t a plot. It’s not even a character study. It’s a patient study.
Zenn Scarlet had a great premise – a vet specialising in alien lifeforms (‘exovet’) situated on Mars. There’s no reason why that premise doesn’t sound awesome. Zenn’s school is kind of under threat because there’s a chance they might lose their land and have to put the animals down, but no one really does anything about overcoming this conflict. Zenn and her uncle just go about their daily lives and chores and lead this book’s plot into a ‘day in the life of an exo-vet in training’, which meant that the selling point of the novel is actually its myriad of aliens, and which honestly would have been interesting enough…
…except that the showcased animals weren’t very imaginative.
The majority of the aliens we met were mammals, which makes me so rageface I can’t even. Several of the other aliens were based on bugs from Earth but you know, giant and intelligent. There was a giant beaver the size of a barn. There was this one awesome gaseous lifeform that has no eyes but could sense light all over its body. That was interesting. But the only truly original alien lifeform in this novel was the baby sunkiller, a massive two-headed beast with wings reminiscent of manta rays that floated its mass using gas in skin bubbles on the wings. That idea was truly awesome and astounding. But unfortunately, it was one of very few aliens that was truly alien, the only alien I could actually see evolving on its world. The rest of the aliens were far too Earth-like. Not to mention the fact that Zenn’s school could only treat aliens from worlds similar enough to Earth and Mars that the animals could breathe our air and drink our water and eat our food.
The technology and world-building in this novel were really good. I was just frustrated that the aliens were mammals. Plot-wise, nothing exciting happened at all – some animals got loose, yeah, and it was totally obvious who was behind it from the start. Zenn wasn’t particularly bright because she kept forgetting basic rules and getting distracted. The blurb also claims she’s occasionally a little too smart for her own good, which was never demonstrated in the novel. In fact, Zenn could have put two and two together to realise who was sabotaging the school much earlier than she actually did and skipped about a quarter of the novel. She didn’t even seem that keen to figure out what was going on at the school, because she convinced herself she’d made all the mistakes that allowed the animals to escape.
It didn’t feel so much as a mystery ‘who’s sabotaging our school’ kind of book so much as a ‘here are some cool aliens, this is what’s wrong with them, this is how we fix them.’ That part in itself was interesting, but it made the book feel lacking in an actual plot. Plot is not ‘a day in the life’. Plot is conflict + obstacles + overcoming them. I didn’t feel like Zenn Scarlett explored its conflicts, despite having a very interesting mystery involving a missing presumed dead mother that really wasn’t looked at but instead seemed to be an excuse for Zenn to act all angsty and explain why she wanted to be an exovet so badly – at least, I guessed that’s why she wanted to be an exovet so badly. Instead of showing conflict and overcoming the conflict, we kept following Zenn and her patients and their illnesses and surgeries. Even the basic premise of the novel, the fact that there were animals escaping because someone was sabotaging them in the hopes to school would be shut down was only looked at from arm’s length until it was revealed who was behind it, which only gave Zenn another reason to angst.
It also suffered from incredibly stilted, unnatural dialogue and infodumps cleverly disguised as conversation that read more like chat show interviews:
“Have you heard of this thing?”
“No, tell me about it.”
“Well, a long time ago blah blah bah.”
“Oh yes, and then what happened?”
“Blah blah blah, related to blah.”
“What does that mean?”
“Let me tell you every conceivable detail, because you are my willing audience who is desperate to know more.”
Thankfully, this occurrence was rare and only happened two or three times throughout the novel.
The novel also felt preachy in several areas, mostly maintaining that aliens are awesome, science is good, narrow-mindedness is evil and being afraid for no reason is stupid. It doesn’t matter that I agree with the sentimentality, the fact is that it was hardly subtle and felt like I was being preached to. Dude, I’m already on your side! You don’t need to hit me over the head with the same argument two or three times.
On the plus side, without using accents, the dialects used by characters raised in different places were totally awesome. Character voice was definitely well conceived and is one of the great strengths of this novel – because with interstellar travel and colonies on many worlds, you’d come across totally different cultures and ways of speaking. That was great and I thoroughly enjoyed the dialects. While Schoon’s narrative was generally nothing spectacular, it was clean, uncluttered, and flowed well enough, and he did have a very firm grasp on worldbuilding. I very much felt completely immersed in the novel and could vividly imagine the world due to Schoon’s subtle descriptions.
Zenn herself felt flat as a character. She didn’t appear as intelligent as the blurb or editor’s foreword suggested she was, and she had no personality. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how she’d react in any given situation. Sure, she was brave and cared deeply for her animals, but what exovet wouldn’t? She had all the usual YA ‘orphan’ angst, a complete naivety to boys, and would rather be alone than go into town and make friends.
The secondary character, Hamish, however, was totally awesome and full of the character development that should also have been extended to Zenn. Did I mention Hamish is my favourite? Also, Zenn’s pet rikkaset Katie was equally as adorable and a totally awesome representation of an intelligent pet without making her anthropomorphic. I want one!
Overall – don’t go into this novel excepting a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure. It’s got a slow pace and we spend much longer looking at aliens than we do exploring the mysteries of the novel and overcoming its conflicts. However, I am hoping that the sequel spends more time investigating Zenn’s mother’s disappearance/death, because I have a few suspicions about that I’d like to see come to light. I’d also love to see what other aliens Schoon can dream up, because that’s really the main selling point, isn’t it?
An advance reader copy was kindly provided by the publisher.