Seventeen year old Zenn Scarlett, the eponymous heroine of Christian Schoon's debut novel, is training to be an exovet—a veterinarian who looks after alien animals. Living on Mars in the Ciscan cloister under the care of its gruff director-abbot, Otha, who also happens to be her uncle, Zenn's efforts to prepare for her end of year exams are hampered by her sudden ability to read the thoughts of her alien patients. On top of all this, she's being blamed for a series of animal escapes, the town council is planning to kick the Ciscans off their land, and she might just be developing feelings for Liam, the towner boy who helps out at the cloister. With so many distractions, will Zenn be able to pass her exams? Or will the cloister close before she has a chance?
I really wanted to like this book. Not only am I excited by Strange Chemistry as an imprint, but given my long-standing fascination with both fictional and mythological creatures, the exovet angle was one I found deeply appealing. And on that front at least, the story is somewhat of a success: Schoon has invented a range of interesting creatures, and his lively, informed descriptions of their habits, bodies and habitats meant I could picture each one with ease. The climactic action sequence was exciting, too, and after having spent most of the novel as witness to Zenn's many failures, it was satisfying to see her exhibit both bravery and competence.
But otherwise, I'm sorry to say, the whole thing is a mess.
Right from the outset, I struggled to stay immersed in a story whose myriad discontinuities and contradictions kept on jerking me out again: no matter which way I looked at it, the story just didn't make sense. Consider, for instance, the anachronistic setting. While blending futuristic details with old school technology isn't necessarily a bad thing (it certainly worked for Firefly), there still has to be a logic to it, which Zenn Scarlett manifestly lacks. Instead, it feels like Schoon has simply dropped a slice of rural, midwestern America onto Mars without making any effort whatsoever at explaining why it belongs there. As a result, we're left with a Martian setting where the farmers use chewing tobacco and speak with hick accents ("Gil sat heavily on a bale of bedding straw, tugged his cap off and wiped at his crew-cut hair with a grimy bandanna. 'Off his feed, moanin' and bellowin'. Bad belly, I guess. All bloated up, colicky like.'" (pp. 90-1)), where ignorant, xenophobic townsfolk drive rusty pickup trucks they can't possibly fuel, and where every principle character is white, thereby adhering to the "Elves And Aliens But No Brown Folk" rule of culturally oblivious storytelling. It's like Futurama's vision of redneck farmers living on the moon, but without the irony.
Adding to this problematic impression is Zenn's apparent status as an Exceptional Girl: not only does she not have any female friends, her interest in animals apparently precludes her having anything in common with other women at a fundamental level:
When she was younger . . . several of the more adventurous girls from the town had come out to visit. To "play", actually. But their concept of fun was lost on Zenn, even at ten years old. The towner girls wanted to engage in activities like make-believe tea parties and giving cute names to the dolls and stuffed animals they'd brought with them. Zenn wanted to show them her real animals, explain where the creatures came from, show them how to feed a crypto-plasmoid and watch the food being digested in its transparent intestinal tract. It only took a few visits before the towner girls stopped coming. (p. 130)
Not only is Schoon's Mars uncannily reminiscent of rural America in terms of dialect and racial homogeneity, but apparently its gender politics are still stuck in the twentieth century, too. The idea of little Martian girls playing with tea sets and stuffed animals is just as anachronistic as the image of their redneck fathers driving rusty pickup trucks across the surface of a terraformed world, but had it been done deliberately—that is, had Schoon made a point of explaining why the Martian settlers fit that particular racial and sociological mold—there might at least have been some scope for an interesting commentary on migration and culture. Instead, we're left with an unnecessarily default setting whose inhabitants feel like yet another contradiction: according to Zenn, Mars severed its ties with Earth over the latter planet's xenophobic, anti-alien stance, but every Martian we meet beyond the cloister seems to hold exactly those views themselves.
In light of this rural backdrop, the novel's primary source of tension—whether or not the council will revoke the cloister's lease—begins to read like a thinly veiled take on the We're Going To Lose The Farm trope. Even so, had the execution been better, the presence of such a clichéd plot device needn't have stood as a negative. Unfortunately, Schoon has a knack for mangling the details: the information we're given about the cloister's status is so inconsistent that instead of justifying the trope, the effect is to lay it bare. Initially, we're told that the cloister's finances are in trouble: Otha is behind on the mortgage payments, and the bank is starting to get antsy. Then we learn that the property is leased from the council, which seems to contradict the existence of a mortgage, as does the fact that the land originally belonged to a local farming family—in which case, how did it come to change hands, and who really owns it now? And why is Otha personally repaying a mortgage on property that the Ciscan order has used for over a century? Nothing we're told makes sense, and as a consequence, it's extremely hard to take the threat of eviction seriously.
And then there's the Ciscan order itself, the origins and running of which present a whole new set of problems. Though the connection is never verified, we're left to assume that Ciscan is a contraction of Franciscan, after St Francis of Assisi—but even without that detail, it's still explicitly stated that the order was originally a religious one. To quote:
Deep-felt religious fervor had brought the Ciscan order to Mars long years ago, fired by visions of new beginning and fresh converts in the canyons of the recently settled Valles Marinaris. These days, science and the treatment of alien creatures held sway . . . the sandstone remnants of the fallen chapel a reminder of a distant, half-remembered past. (p. 34)
In Zenn's time, however, and despite their continued usage of religious titles like sexton and director-abbot, the Ciscans are portrayed as entirely secular—but as with so much else, there's no explanation as to how or why an order of conversion-hungry zealots came to completely abandon their faith. The idea that religion belongs to a "half-remembered past," and has therefore fallen out of record, feels incredibly insincere, not only because there's no logical reason why the Ciscans would forget such a dramatic and significant part of their own history, but because the past in question doesn't seem to be that long ago. At best guess, given Otha's statement that the Ciscans have been on Mars "for over a century" (p. 109), it doesn't seem as though more than two hundred years has passed since they changed their ways—and given that this is a futuristic setting, complete with space travel, computer technology and advanced medicine, I just don't buy the idea that no record of the transition remains, especially when you consider that the Ciscan order exists throughout the galaxy. Even more confusingly, the cloister only seems to contain five people, two of whom arrived recently: we never so much as glimpse another initiate in passing, and while this might make sense if Zenn's cloister were just one of many such outposts, instead, we're told they're the only ones on Mars.
Even on the subject of the cloister's alien charges, which are undeniably Schoon's greatest achievement, there are inconsistencies. When their resident whalehound escapes its pen, for instance—this being a massive, ocean-dwelling creature so large its eyelashes are the size of broomsticks—Zenn and Otha shoot it with a tranquillizer out on the plains of Mars; yet it's never explained how they manage to carry a deadweight mammal the size of a building back to the cloister when, by all accounts, they have no equipment capable of lifting it. It's similarly unclear how the cloister manages to feed so many giant creatures given their lack of money and the fact that there's no native plant or animal life to draw from: we're simply left to infer that somehow, magically, it all works.
These aren't the only issues I had with the setting, but they're certainly the most prominent, and in combination, the effect is to leave the plot severely compromised. Even so, had the novel succeed stylistically, the whole might still have been salvageable. Alas, when it comes to the actual writing, Schoon's style vacillates between pedestrian ("She really didn't have time for this. Didn't have time to be distracted. But she was strangely reluctant to leave. There it was. No point in pretending. Just now, standing in this spot, she was distracted" (p. 202)) and awkward ("Draped across his shoulders, Hamish wore a vest-like garment of brownish-red metal chainmail, with a scattering of pockets" (p. 35)). The characterization is similarly lackluster: the secondary characters are overwhelmingly portrayed as stock yokel farmers with little to distinguish them; Hamish, a sentient insect, is defined by his repetitive and frequently stilted affectations ("The Queen Spawn-Mother forbids me doing this thing here on this world, with the exception of it being a dire emergency. I must have approval" (p. 47)); Otha is your standard bluff, non-nonsense, unimaginative father-figure; and Liam, for all his supposed importance to Zenn, is absent for most of the story. Zenn herself is slightly more promising, as you'd expect from a main character—and in fairness, the passion with which she argues her personal convictions about science and animal rights goes a long way towards fleshing her out. Unfortunately, these exchanges tend to be both long-winded and didactically unsubtle, and when combined with Schoon's tendency to tell us about Zenn's feelings rather than show them, the end result feels decidedly inorganic.
This problem is only worsened by the frequently stilted language. Along with a decided overuse of melodramatic ellipses ("When things finally went from merely sad to utterly catastrophic, Zenn was quite certain of one thing. The fault . . . was hers" (p. 16)), Schoon's characters have a tendency to revert to the sort of awkward dialogue you'd expect to find in a B-grade pulp novella ("'Waves? Heh.' The boy laughed. 'We need no waves to show us the truth of the Ghost Shepherds'" (p. 185))—that is, when they're not busy talking like 80s teenagers ("That's gotta cramp your style" (p. 162)) or cartoon hillbillies ("You're paradin' that six-legged whatzit around big as life and expect folks not to get bent outa shape? You Ciscans need to wake up and see what's what, missy" (p. 119)).
The pacing is the final nail in the coffin. For much of the novel, nothing really happens: Zenn and Otha do their exovet rounds, looking after the hogs and goats belonging to the local farmers, but throughout these scenes, there's little tension and less of importance to the actual plot. Had the characterization been stronger and the book itself longer, with a stronger focus on setting and background detail, Schoon could easily have gone the James Herriot route and made these visits into individual anecdotes or subplots. Instead, each case serves as little more than a thinly veiled excuse to describe the animal in question; the owners don't matter, and the problem is always easily fixed—with one notable exception. Having been briefly introduced to Liam's pet cat, Zeus, in an earlier chapter, the animal is soon brought into the cloister, desperately injured. We then spend no less than twenty-three pages watching while Zenn first begs Otha's permission to try and save the cat, then stays awake for thirty-six hours doing so. And that's it: the cat lives, then promptly vanishes from the story forever. Even though Zeus is meant to be the most important thing in Liam's life, by the end of the book, we're left to infer that his owner has abandoned him without a second thought. And in a novel whose big hook is the presence of extraordinary creatures, it doesn't seem irrelevant that the animal who not only merits the longest veterinary scene, but in whom we're meant to feel the most emotional investment, is a garden-variety cat.
Ultimately, Zenn Scarlett is a novel that disappoints on multiple levels. It rankled to see such a problematic, homogeneous setting perpetuated with so little conscious thought, while on the worldbuilding side of things, I can't understand why the endless discontinuities weren't fixed in editing. For all that their presence undermined the entire plot, none were so deeply or irrevocably tied to the story as to prevent changing them, and given the originality and strength of the premise, this would have gone a long way towards shoring up the story. As for the stylistic and structural problems, their failings are likely due to Schoon's status as a first-time author, and might well be remedied over time. But overall, Zenn Scarlett isn't a novel I'd recommend. If you don't care about worldbuilding, continuity or bad dialogue and just want a quick, easy YA read with a lone female heroine and lots of interesting creatures, then you could probably do worse. But if, like me, you care about the details, then it's probably better to give this one a miss.
Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and sometime fantasy writer. She blogs about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. She is also the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt.
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