Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon

Zenn Scarlett was such a nice surprise. If it hadn’t been pitched to me, I doubt I would have even noticed it. It’s a futuristic science fiction story (not a dystopia!) about a teenage exo-veterinarian in training named – you guessed it – Zenn Scarlett. She lives in a cloister on Mars, treating a few injured Earth animals, but mostly focusing on the care of alien animals from places all over the known universe. She studies under her exovet uncle; her mother was an exovet who died in an accident many years ago, and her father has been offworld for a while on some potentially shady business.
The exovet cloister sits uneasily among a town of human colonists from Earth. For the most part, these people have nothing to do with the cloister. They’re farmers who work the terraformed land, and the relationship between the town and the cloister is an uneasy one. Mars doesn’t have much contact with Earth anymore, due to some tricky political events, and land on Mars is at a premium. It gets used up quickly, and there are many Mars residents who say the land the cloister occupies should be relinquished to the people, to be used for something “useful” rather than the care of dangerous animals.
It’s in this political climate that Zenn finds herself. Most of the people on Mars don’t regard her, her uncle, or the animals they care for positively. To make matters worse, there have been a series of animal escapes, and since many of the animals can indeed be very dangerous, such escapes make the cloister look bad. Zenn must discover how the animals are escaping (and worry if it’s her own neglect or sabotage), plus contend with the town council, a lot of anti-alien hostility, her tests, and a strange ability she’s recently acquired that enables her to almost commune with the animals she cares for.
Zenn Scarlett has some pretty common debut author problems, mostly with the dialogue. Schoon uses the dialogue for a lot of infodumps. It’s interesting information for sure (I loved learning about how Zenn cares for the animals), but it’s not always presented in the best way. He also tends to overuse the non-word “alright,” which is something I hope will be fixed before final publication.
The plot is good, although the mystery of who is sabotaging the cloister and why isn’t much of one. There aren’t really many viable suspects, and the clues dropped are a bit too obvious. That doesn’t stop the book from being fascinating. World-building is where it shines. The politics of the colony on Mars, how the cloister interacts with the town and its council, how people grow crops and make the planet liveable all seemed believable to me.
The animals are the real highlight, though. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an animal person (I make exceptions for most dogs). But the animals that Zenn works with at the cloister are so creative and fascinating. How the sentient beings (human and alien) live with, use, and treat the animals is equally fascinating. There’s the whalehound, an animal so huge, humans actually go inside of it via a pod to treat its internal injuries. There’s the sandhog, which burrows underneath farmland and secretes chemicals that make the soil fertile. And there’s the sunkiller, a huge animal which uses a combination of gases in its wings to float and hosts cities of sentient aliens in gondolas underneath it and in buildings on top of it. Schoon also weaves a deep sense of respect throughout the novel for all of his living creatures – those that harm people and those that don’t.
The aliens are interesting, too. My favorite is the eight foot tall insectoid alien named Hamish, who is on a sort of exchange program from his home planet, assisting at the cloister. The snippets we get of his culture are quite interesting, as are his interactions with Zenn. He is very polite, always asking for permission before doing anything and taking it in stride when the non-cloister Martian residents poke or spit at him. Making him such a prominent character seems like a huge risk, because who wants to read about a giant sentient cockroach outside of a horror novel? Apparently, I do.
I’m a review-reader. Reading others’ reviews of a book helps me to collect my own thoughts, allowing me to see where I agree and disagree with people. I was a little amazed to see that many Goodreads reviewers felt this book was unoriginal, and their complaints mainly had to do with the animals. Some readers felt the animals were too mammalian, too Earth-like, not different enough from what we see on our own planet. This critique was strange for me to read, because I felt the animals were quite imaginative. They were the main reason I liked the book so much. No two people read the same book.
The end of the book sets up a sequel that delves more into Zenn’s mother’s death and what her father has been doing offworld. It involves Zenn’s ability to commune with the animals she works with, and it promises to be fascinating. I’m really curious to see where Schoon goes with the next book, particularly since it appears to take us off Mars, perhaps onto completely new planets (with new and interesting aliens and animals).
Zenn Scarlett is a Strange Chemistry release. We’ve talked a little bit about Strange Chemistry (an imprint of Angry Robot) before, and judging by how much I liked this book, I’ll be wanting to check out their other releases. It makes me really excited to discover a new press or imprint that publishes creative, edited material. Though it’s not as polished, I would compare this to Pete Hautman’s Klaatu Diskos trilogy – they’re both SF with some very imaginative and just plain different world-building.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Zenn Scarlett will available April 30.
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