I am officially whelmed by this book. Exoveterinary studies sounds like a cool field, and all the strange animal descriptions reminded me of Animorphs, which I guess is always a good thing. Zenn Scarlett is a very whelming book, however: it is competent in every technical respect, but it does not inspire me or grab me. Christian Schoon’s imagination is rich, but his rendering of it on the page leaves something to be desired.
Our eponymous heroine is taking the tests needed to become an exovet novice. For some reason, exoveterinarianism is a monastic kind of thing. She lives on Mars, at the cloister run by her uncle, and is pretty good with the animals. Too good, in fact—she has some kind of psychic rapport with them, except that should be impossible, because psychic stuff is fake. Oh, and mysterious sabotage keeps occurring, and Zenn keeps getting the blame. So we have all the ingredients for a good mystery, for something that would keep me engaged. I was ready for Zenn to get mixed up in some high-stakes, pulse-pounding action.
What we get instead is … hmm. I’m not sure if it’s just that this book aims at a younger target audience than I was expecting, or if it just doesn’t pitch its tone quite right, but Zenn Scarlett reads like an after-school TV show. The villains are all a little over the top. The conflicts are all very mundane. Most of this story is just small town shenanigans transplanted to Mars. Replace “aliens” with “outsiders” and the townies become your standard closed-minded rural folk who don’t want to see the city slickers around. The plot progression is eminently predictable—like, I had most of the plot figured out after the first few chapters, and even with the few twists that Schoon threw in here or there, none of it was very surprising. Zenn is the Encyclopedia Brown of exovet stories.
Unfortunately, the novelty that might be acquired from having a setting on Mars is belied by the utter waste of such an amazing planet. For the longest time, I was trying to figure out how everyone was living there—were they in domes, had the planet been terraformed? I was worried Schoon had just overlooked that one small niggling detail. To his credit, he eventually tosses in an explanation that some kind of force-field is keeping the atmosphere “pressurized” up to a certain altitude. (No mention of where the nitrogen/oxygen ratio required for human life is coming from.) Still, Mars is a special place. I kind of feel like you don’t use it in your science fiction unless you’re willing to deal with it in the right way, willing to accord it that gravitas it demands as our closest planet and most likely candidate for colonization. The way Schoon describes living on Mars, however, it might as well be any extraterrestrial planet. This is a waste of the Red Planet!
If these aspects of the story underwhelm, there are some redeeming moments that bump the book back up into whelming territory. There is some cool technology at work here to work with these large animals. The “in soma” pods and the regeneration tool (I can’t be bothered to find its name) are neat ideas. Similarly, Zenn herself is not a terrible protagonist, though I do find her a rather flat character. The cliffhanger at the end of the novel (yes, this is merely a set up for a larger story, surprise surprise) is genuinely interesting—though, again, I think I’ve kind of got it mostly figured out already.
If you are trapped in an airport, or at an insufferable relative’s house, or you’re waiting for the rain to stop before you dig up that body, this is a perfectly pleasant book to pick up and pass the time. The story is OK, the characters are OK, and the writing is … yeah, OK. And that is OK, I guess. But that’s about all I can say.