I read Katya’s World by Jonathan Howard last year, the first book by Strange Chemistry that looked like proper sci-fi. When Zenn Scarlett was announced I knew it was another to keep my eye on, looking very much like the sort of YA SF I’d enjoy. I’m pleased to say that the imprint has done its job here, publishing another SF title that ticks many boxes and, above all else, is very readable.
Zenn Scarlett is a teenager training to become an exovet on Mars, a planet that has been abandoned by Earth, and its population is struggling to get by after the event. With the atmosphere dwindling, those living there fight hard to exploit the land they have, and with the clinic using prime land it’s a target for those that want it gone to gain access to its use. And now with mishaps occurring at the clinic it comes under the scrutiny of the local officials. And despite this, Zenn is preparing and taking trials to allow her to move on to the next level of training. Yet still she must care for the animals at the clinic, all the while trying to figure out exactly what is going on…
What initially appealed to me about Zenn Scarlett was the setting: alien veterinary clinic on Mars, seemingly dealing with all sorts of alien life. While the clinic was the main focus of the story, I didn’t get the feeling of scale – or weirdness – that the alien patients could have presented. However, the clinic is at its quietest, struggling to pull in the volume of patients it has in the past, and this part of the story allows Schoon to play on various aspects of the characters and local history.
What we also have is an interesting protagonist in Zenn, whose background and current circumstances make for some interesting reading. Her mother, also an exovet, disappeared along with the animal she was working on in what could only be described as a freak accident when Zenn was a child, while her father is not around, but often referred to. Add to this that Zenn seems to be developing some sort of telepathic ability that gives her some access to the thoughts of the alien animals she is working on, and we have a strong lead to drive the narrative. However, with the positive comes the negative, and Zenn is no exception. We often find ourselves reading about how she can’t let anyone get close to her, which seems fine to start with, but it gets repetitive, as if Schoon has this desire to ensure the reader doesn’t ever forget about this aspect. It’s an aspect that bugged me, more because of the repetition than the topic.
The story moves along at a decent pace, with much taking place in and around the clinic. From the early events where Zenn is taking care of her patients, to the accidents that start happening , Zenn Scarlett lifts the reader up and takes them along for the ride. Some of the more interesting aspects are the relationships on offer between those in the clinic and the local town. It shows that not everything is A-okay, and it starts to plant the seeds that come to fruition later in the novel. There is some repetitiveness, though this is the nature of the setting and Zenn’s occupation more than a deliberate attempt to remind readers of what’s going on.
At the end of the day, Zenn Scarlett would appeal to anyone that likes a well driven and enjoyable SF novel that is more than initially meets the eye. Not only does it deliver a self-contained story that both excites and intrigues, it leaves the door open to go some very interesting places.