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... (synopsis from Goodreads)
This is an interesting book to review, as it had many high points but also quite a few small lows for me. Because of this, the review might seem as though it’s leaning towards the negative, but it’s important to establish first that I actually really loved this book. It held my interest all the way through, and despite some problems I found it a fascinating and well-executed idea. I’m definitely looking forward to more books set in this universe.
So, first off, this isn’t really a story so much as a collection of episodes, like one of those TV series that follows around the local country doctor or vet. Which is funny, because this book actually is about a vet. Or rather, about exo-vets, a clinic on Mars that cares for and treats alien animals. I know, what a fantastic concept, right? The book follows Zenn Scarlett, a young exo-vet in training, as she goes through her duties at the cloister (clinic), attempts to pass her tests, and treats all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures. Almost all children want to be a vet at some point when they’re growing up so that they can work with animals, and I can really see this appealing to a younger reader. The characters, story and themes also seemed suited to the younger YA reader. Zenn can be rather naive, and a lot of the moral messages are stated very simply, repeated often, and pushed quite heavily.
This can get a little frustrating at points, as I do in fact agree with the main message, but also felt very sympathetic towards the ‘towners’. After all, the exo-vet cloister is keeping some animals that would kill humans if they were to escape, despite Zenn’s protestations otherwise. In fact, there is an incident that kinda revolves around this very point. Clearly hostility and sabotage are not the answers, but at the same time, the cloister could reach out a little better to the locals, as Otha himself realises later in the book. I felt like there was some subtlety missing from the moral messages and particularly from the reactions of the characters (particularly at the end – would this one incident be enough to overcome so much fear and suspicion?).
The book is mainly made up of episodes involving the treatment or care of different creatures, and in a sense this is quite repetitive. The animals are interesting, but many of them are similar (a lot seem to be giant versions or mixes of Earth animals), and I had hoped for a few really alien aliens. There is a mystery tying the whole thing together – who is trying to sabotage the clinic and why? – and a threat to the cloister in the upcoming council’s vote. This is kept in the background until near the end, and the larger mysteries of the novel – Zenn’s mother, Zenn’s father, the Indra incidents, Zenn’s weird mind communication with animals – are all left for future books to explore. This is a little disappointing, as the greater story doesn’t really kick in until very close to the end, meaning that the pace suddenly picks up and the drama really gets going, and then... it ends.
However, although this sounds like a major flaw, it actually really isn’t. I enjoyed this story a lot, simply following Zenn around and learning about all the animals. This first book could be seen almost entirely as a worldbuilding book, setting the scene for later novels, and yet, the worldbuilding is so good that it doesn’t matter at all. The atmosphere and setting are perfect; Mars really feels like a backroads, almost cowboy-ish world, and the societies and people felt so real. There are hints about what’s happening on Earth, and hints about other worlds and cultures beyond Mars, and a fantastic solution to FTL travel that involves alien animals, which is extremely appropriate to the story. This isn’t just a story about space vets, which is itself an interesting enough idea; it’s clearly a well thought-out universe in which exo-vets are actually completely vital, due to the method of space travel employed. This is really well done.
The characters themselves are largely good too, though Liam is somewhat bland and Zenn can be a little whiny at times and preachy at others. I also think Zenn must have flunked her dice roll when it came to assigning wisdom. High intelligence, low common sense. Most readers will probably see who has been sabotaging the cloister very early on, and then begin to second guess because it’s just so obvious. However, Zenn is mostly a very likeable and sympathetic character, and many of the side-characters, such as the sheriff and Vic, are fantastic. Hamish was my favourite, and I so desperately wish rikkasets were real. I want my own Katie!
Overall, Zenn Scarlett is a very fun and enjoyable book, quite slow moving and episodic, but with enough in it that kept me engaged and interested throughout. I’m looking forward to reading more set in this fantastic universe, especially as it seems as though the plot is about to really pick up steam in the next book.
Thank you to Strange Chemistry and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.