Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon

“When you’re studying to be exoveterinarian specializing in exotic, alien life forms, school… is a different kind of animal.

Zenn Scarlett is a resourceful, determined 17-year-old girl working hard to make it through her novice year of exovet training. That means she’s learning to care for alien creatures that are mostly large, generally dangerous and profoundly fascinating. Zenn’s all-important end-of-term tests at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars are coming up, and, she’s feeling confident of acing the exams. But when a series of inexplicable animal escapes and other disturbing events hit the school, Zenn finds herself being blamed for the problems. As if this isn’t enough to deal with, her absent father has abruptly stopped communicating with her; Liam Tucker, a local towner boy, is acting unusually, annoyingly friendly; and, strangest of all: Zenn is worried she’s started sharing the thoughts of the creatures around her. Which is impossible, of course. Nonetheless, she can’t deny what she’s feeling.

Now, with the help of Liam and Hamish, an eight-foot sentient insectoid also training at the clinic, Zenn must learn what’s happened to her father, solve the mystery of who, if anyone, is sabotaging the cloister, and determine if she’s actually sensing the consciousness of her alien patients… or just losing her mind. All without failing her novice year….”

This novel begins with a bang—quite literally—with a scene involving her mother and a disastrous procedure on a massive alien life form. After that, though, the book slows down considerably. Much of what follows is focused on Zenn’s training and the evaluation of her fitness to become an exovet. The author has definitely cooked up some interesting procedures and some intriguing alien animals, but I feel that this part of the story went on too long. Mostly it’s just that there’s not a lot of tension to be found in the mundane activities of taking care of animals.

There’s a secondary story that perhaps should have been pushed into greater prominence: the political situation between Mars and Earth. It’s this conflict that lies at the heart of a lot of what takes place with regards to the clinic and its inhabitants, but it seems like Schoon is too focused on creating weird creatures to give this plotline the time and space that might help it to shine. It also would have made it easier to draw on the question of what constitutes an alien, which was touched on here with thought-provoking results.

That said, Schoon does an excellent job at creating those aliens, especially the more intelligent ones. Zenn has a little cat-like creature called a rikkaset as a pet, and they communicate with each other via sign language. The other notable character is Hamish, a giant insectoid alien who is scrupulously polite and gets some funny moments while trying to understand human culture.

The last third of the book picks up the pace, and eventually dramatic things start happening. It feels a little rushed, given that it starts so late in the story, but Schoon manages to pull things together and make the final chapters memorable. All in all, it makes for a fairly solid story, and I think I would have liked it even more if the pacing had been evened out a little more.

Overall, this is a good novel for teen readers. There are plenty of alien beings, some mystery, some politics, and some adventure—there’s something for everyone. It takes a little while to find its momentum, but it gets its footing eventually and starts turning into a very interesting science fiction saga. Zenn Scarlett has a few hiccups, but the author shows enough promise that I’ll probably pick up the next book when it comes out.

This review was originally posted on July 11, 2013.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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