The Last Colony was the triumphant conclusion to the trilogy of John Perry and Jane Sagan vs. the Universe. Reluctant leaders of the new Roanoke colony, John and Jane manage to stave off a couple of deadly attacks and do an end-run around the Colonial Union brinksmanship that would otherwise have proved deadly for the colony in the long term. And they do this all while being the adoptive parents of a sixteen-year-old who is also beloved of a terrifying efficient alien species.
Zoë is one of the best things about The Last Colony, so she is a good choice for a spin-off/tie-in book. Scalzi also hints that she has significant adventures of her own—and that’s even before John sends her off on an Obin ship to pay a visit to General Gau and somehow she returns with a Consu sapper field generator. Zoe’s Tale is more than just a retelling, then; it adds new, “deleted scenes” that were not in the original.
I highly recommend Zoe’s Tale if you’ve read The Last Colony. I suspect which one you like better will largely be a matter of taste (as in, if you have taste, you will agree with me that this one is better). However, I don’t think this book will be as satisfying if you haven’t already experienced The Last Colony. I left a nearly ideal gap in between reading that book and this one: long enough that my memories of the events had begun to fade, but not so long that I was a little lost when Scalzi didn’t spell things out explicitly.
As he mentions in his afterword, writing a “retelling” book is more difficult than it might seem. I like to think of it as breaking the fifth wall, like when I try to poke around into the houses and lives of NPCs in video games. In the good ol’ days of PC gaming Star Trek: Elite Force and whatnot, I’d use the console commands to turn off clipping and explore the map for hidden areas, discovering enemies just waiting until they were transported onto the map. Breaking this fifth wall reminds you that storytelling is a perspective-dependent illusion: shift the perspective a little, and suddenly things start to break down. The secondary characters are not independent beings; they don’t have lives and timelines separate from whatever the requirements of the narrative demand. So when you try to turn things around and explore their lives, you run into interesting conundrums of continuity and motivation that you have to address.
For the most part, Scalzi does pretty well here. Zoë is an interesting departure from the previous characters of the Old Man’s War series. Unlike John and Jane, she has never served as a soldier in the Colonial Defense Force. She is, at heart, a teenage girl. This makes for a radically different narrator (or it should—once again, Scalzi seems unable to keep a minimum level of sardonic smugness out of his characters) with very different priorities. Having spent several years living on Huckleberry with John and Jane, now, Zoë has of course acquired certain traits from them. But Zoe’s Tale allows us to get a much better idea of how much she has become her own person.
In particular, Scalzi has more time to explore Zoë’s complex relationship with the Obin and what this signifies for her and for them. Though this relationship is a huge plot point in The Last Colony, it’s always mediated through John’s limited understanding of the situation. Now we see it through the eyes of its object: Zoë is a kind of idol for the Obin, as well as a role model. It’s something she is never comfortable with, yet events force her to adjust to this status and learn how to wield it, when necessary.
This culminates with Zoë’s trip to Gau, which involves a sideline where she agrees to let Obin fight Consu convicts to the death. (Don’t ask.) Up until this point, I was enjoying the book, but reading it was mostly the sensation of coasting through a comfortable story. The moral dilemmas inherent in Zoë’s use of the Obin here, however, got my attention. I love the way she agonizes over what’s happening, then makes her decision and manipulates the Consu. And then when the Obin demonstrate what I can only describe as loyalty to Zoë, I was nearly in tears. It’s touching, and wonderful, and I love that Scalzi manages to pull it off with making Zoë like a Mary Sue—she beats the Consu, yes, but only in a limited arena.
Indisputably a companion novel in this series, Zoe’s Tale nevertheless has plenty to offer on its own. If you’re still reading these novels, there’s no reason to skip over this one. And there’s so much potential here for more stories about Zoë: what does she do as a young adult? How does her relationship with the Obin involve? I’d be happy to read another book told from her perspective.